There comes a time when baking cookies, washing cars, selling bracelets and performing other good deeds to help those in need must stop and tangible work be done.
For Jack Schwab, Scott Dahl, Cindy Musick, Ann Steele, Emily Peterson and Michelle Chalmers, that time came in January, when the team of six Fairfax County residents book flights to Sri Lanka to offer their helping hands to tsunami victims on their own turf.
“Jack and I like to do things with our hands, we don’t like to sit back and watch things happen,” Dahl said.
The idea was originally formed following last fall’s string of hurricanes that devastated Florida.
“We decided that, after the next hurricane, we’d jump on a flight to Florida to go help. It just happened that the next disaster wasn’t a hurricane but the tsunami,” Dahl said as he and Musick sat with Schwab in his McLean home.
Sri Lanka was the chosen destination because “it was hit harder per capita than any other area,” he said.
The team had talents that would be needed in the camps established for those who had lost their homes: Schwab and Dahl have construction backgrounds, Peterson and Chalmers are nurses, Steele is a civil engineer and Musick, Dahl said, “is marvelous with children.”
Although the group did not necessarily know each other ahead of time, they were connected through friends and arrived in Sri Lanka at relatively the same time. They started traveling from camp to camp to do whatever they could to help.
“The most fundamental needs were being met. They had food, shelter, clothing and basic medicine,” Dahl said.
“The emotional needs and psychological impact of the tsunami were completely untreated. Even at the first camp we began to realize that it was important to interact with the people in a personal and meaningful way, and the best way to do that was to play with the kids,” he said.
Initially, when the team approached the small children at the camps, they were met with a little hesitation.
“MICHELLE BROUGHT a list of games and songs to play and teach the children,” Musick said. “We found six kids to play with us at first and when we played ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ they started to laugh. When we got to the ‘all fall down’ part, I fell right on my tush and they all started laughing,” she said.
That fall turned out to be the best icebreaker they could have asked for.
“Even the armed guard at the camp started to laugh,” Dahl said. “The women and men at the camp who had looked so taciturn when we arrived started to laugh and point at us.”
That first small group of children grew and grew until eventually most of the camp had joined by the end of the three hours, Musick said. “We had fifty kids playing ‘Duck, Duck, DUCK,’” she said. “I think we taught the Hokey Pokey to half of Sri Lanka,” she said, laughing.
From there, it didn’t take long to gain the trust and friendship of the adults in the camp, Schwab said. “It was very much like being in someone’s house for a party, we were allowed to make ourselves at home. We’d go around the camp, into people’s tents and into the school. We had no fear of invading their privacy because they were really trusting of us.”
The simple act of playing with the children made a noticeable and immediate improvement in the atmosphere at the camp, Dahl said.
“You could feel the kids liked being touched and held and we were more than happy to step in,” he said. “Once the parents saw this, they opened up to us… we did a lot of listening to them and their stories of loss. In so many cases, their tears were right below the surface.”
Although they had been warned not to expect warm welcomes and open arms when entering a camp, when Schwab and the rest of the volunteers returned they were treated like family.
“We knew we had to come back because there were things people needed and they needed the sense that we cared about them,” Dahl said. “When Cindy and the other girls would come back, the kids would start dancing the dances they learned the last time.”
CHILDREN WERE playing barefoot in the barbed wire that had been used to denote where property lines stood, so one of the first needs to be addressed were shoes for the residents of the camp.
“They needed sandals, milk for babies who had lost their mothers, things like that,” Musick said.
“We’d take a list of things they needed and bring it back a week later,” Schwab said, adding that many of those in the camps were surprised to see them. “We were told that many people who come to assess the camps don’t come back again,” he said.
The only item that was in short supply were blank drawing pads, given to the children to play with and, unexpectedly, share their grief through heart-wrenching depictions of the nightmare of the tsunami.
“We were playing with the children and gave them the books to draw in. Everyone was having a good time, but one boy looked at the blank page and started to cry,” Musick said. “He eventually drew a picture of his home with a TV and there was person up to his chest in water, with another lying dead on the floor underwater.”
Her eyes teared up as she continued. “The children were resilient at play but were deeply, deeply traumatized and horrified by what happened,” she said.
Between half and two-thirds of the children drew pictures of what they remembered of the tsunami, some showing bodies buried in mud and under homes, others depicting loved ones trapped in the giant wave crying out for help with arms outstretched.
“Cindy’s actually in the process of having the pictures compiled into a book to raise money for the people of Sri Lanka,” Schwab said. Currently the pictures are posted on the group’s Web site, www.srilankanhelp.org.
But that release, as difficult as it may have been for the children to handle, proved to be helpful.
“One teenage boy came up and told me that they were all happy now in the camp because of us, which made the whole trip worthwhile,” Musick said.
Adults in the camps found it difficult, if not pointless at first, to open up to the volunteers because “everyone had lost someone. Everyone had gone through the same thing, no one had a shoulder to cry on,” Schwab said. “We were very happy to provide that, but the children had even fewer outlets for their grief and their lives were very much flipped upside down.”
The evidence of their work was in the smiles on the faces of the adults, he said, who had been “despondent” when they arrived.
THE CAMPS had been set up on the footprints of the homes lost to the tsunami, meaning they were in sight of the water that was so destructive.
“I got spooked a couple of times,” Schwab said. “What a confused, sad area it was, but after we had spent time playing with the children, who had refused to sleep in the tents because they were terrified the water would come back again, they went to sleep with their families.”
Among the more popular items at the camps were simple toys and candy to cheer up the children.
“A 39-cent tennis ball was like gold because you can do so much with it,” Schwab said.
Although the children were making progress to a return to their pre-tsunami lives, the adults were having a harder time dealing with their grief.
“All we could do was stand by the adults, put our arms around them,” Musick said.
In one of the camps they visited, their interpreter pointed out a man, his cousin, riding a bike down a dirt road. The man, they were told, had lost his entire family in the tsunami and had tried to take his own life because his grief was unbearable.
“Jack couldn’t communicate with the man in his native language, but he went over and put his arms around him,” she said. “Everything in the camp went quiet…a few minutes later, all we could hear was the two of them sobbing, holding each other.”
After spending time of the western portion of the country, it was time to move east, were they had heard supplies were not always getting to the camps and the region had been among the hardest hit by the tsunami, Dahl said. So they headed for Batticaloa, the regional capital of the area that had been controlled by the Tamil during the recently ended civil war.
“Jack and I got on a train and started to visit camps,” he said. “We arrived at the Dutchbar part of the beach and almost every house within a half mile of the beach was absolutely demolished.”
WHEN THEY STOPPED to help a man dismantle his home and rebuild it from the remaining material, they met a man who would prove to be their greatest friend in Sri Lanka.
“That night we met with their local Rotary branch and their president asked us if we could help him rebuild homes,” Schwab said. It was originally stated that no rebuilding would take place for at least six months, so this request “was like a miracle,” he said.
The man, Sri Sanker, was the unofficial political figure of the area, and asked Schwab and Dahl to help him rebuild homes to get people out of the camps so schools could reopen; the camps in that region were organized on school locations and had been disrupting the area’s ability to return to a normal life routine, Schwab said.
“This particular region, where Sanker lived, was not particularly heavily damaged because it was built on the other side of the lagoon and the government had OK’d rebuilding there,” Dahl said.
The men devised a priority list, giving immediate attention to the elderly, pregnant women and those who appeared in the direst need. Currently there are 76 families or individuals on this list, but 18 homes had been completed by the time Schwab and Dahl returned to Virginia two weeks ago.
“We didn’t say no to anyone, we told them we’d put them on our list and we did,” Schwab said.
Dahl added. “The reason this was a brilliant idea was because we could rebuild a home or make a provisional home for about $500. Granted, these are two to four room homes, with squat outhouses outside, no plumbing or electric, but we would get people out of the camps and on the road to rebuilding their lives,” he said.
When people began to return to their homes, “the happiness was palpable,” Dahl said. “Now, these people had something tangible.”
People were not only getting homes but the chance to get back to work, he said, as many of the laborers and artisans who helped build the homes had not worked since the tsunami and were in need of money.
“A mason’s work for a day paid $6, and they were ecstatic to get the money,” he said. “People were clamoring for us to build their homes, to meet us or to get on our list.”
The wells that provided drinking water had been contaminated by the sludge and silt the tsunami brought and had be pumped and scrubbed several times to be potable.
“For $10 we could supply the people with all the well water they’d need for all their uses,” Dahl said.
Working within their own small group of six volunteers, the group was able to operate “under the radar,” he said, and they hope to continue to provide assistance in the same manner when they return in August to rebuild more houses.
“We’ve assembled a team of local laborers with a supervisor of sorts to oversee their work while we’re gone,” he said. “Jack is in frequent contact with them to mentor their progress and provide money. We’re trying to build as many homes as we can while the money holds out.”
Ten dollars also provides medical care, include cab fare to and from a doctor’s visit, Schwab said. “The village chief and his daughter both had wounds which had become infected to the point where Emily couldn’t help them with her doctor’s kit, so we gave them money to go to the doctor and when we returned they were so happy to show us that the wounds were completely healed.”
They also heard, and witnessed, incredible feats performed by those who survived the tsunami.
One man, Ravi, felt so fortunate that his family was saved from the tsunami and his house was relatively undamaged that he took his small, aluminum fishing boat into the wave five times, rescuing a total of 95 people.
“He felt that God had protected him and his family so he wanted to help other people,” Musick said.
Sri Sanker, the Rotary president who asked for their help in rebuilding homes, was also the top local official in Batacaola, a civil service position that made him available to the residents of the area at all times.
“Everyone knows his name,” Schwab said. “He works constantly and is very committed to helping his people. He impressed me as an intelligent, caring person and he does all this work for no personal gain at all.”
Since returning home, Schwab and Musick said their views on life have drastically changed.
“Every time I take my wife out to dinner, I can’t help but think that $40 is two week’s worth of labor,” Schwab said.
“I think of all the stuff we have and how we don’t need it,” Musick said. “We all felt a sense of peace and joy over there…we were really sad to leave.”
THE MATERIAL WORLD she encountered walking through Heathrow Airport in London on her way home brought to back to reality.
“It was such a blast of commerce and style, I wanted to scream,” she said.
For now, they have returned to tell their story, collect funds to continue their work and come up with a strategy for their return visit in August.
“Jack has just written a letter for contributors with information on the work we’ve done and the supplies we’ve bought,” Musick said.
“It’s important to know that every single penny we receive goes to our efforts, there’s no overhead or administrative costs,” Schwab said. “We’d eventually like to build an orphanage, we want to help put people back to work. There are seamstresses, fishermen, handymen, tailors over there that want to work.”
Musick is also in the process of finding a publisher to compile the drawings of children into a book, the proceeds from which will fund their efforts in Sri Lanka.
“I know of 200 Sri Lankan children who would love to have an American pen pal,” she added.
But the real lesson they learned is so much simpler that books or letters or houses or trying to rebuild a devastated nation.
“Seeing what they’ve been through and how they’re trying to regain their lives, you treasure every day you have because you realize that life is just so fragile,” she said.