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 Post subject: Louisiana answered the call after Tsunami
 Post Posted: Sun Jan 15, 2006 5:54 pm 
County residents answered the call after disasters in Southeast Asia, Louisiana

By Nancy Pasternack / December 31, 2005
Copyright © Santa Cruz Sentinel

Thousands of residents in the Santa Cruz area reached out in 2005 to help distant strangers whose lives had been upended by two epochal disasters — the tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf states.

Sextus Selvaratnam of Capitola and Gary Maclaughlin of Live Oak were among those who felt compelled to respond. Their networking skills, manpower and sheer momentum continue to fuel ongoing relief projects in those devastated places.

Selvaratnam and Maclaughlin represent the generosity and spirit of innovation in our community and have been selected as 2005 Sentinel newsmakers.

Selvaratnam, a Capitola resident, was in the midst of enjoying a 2004 Christmas vacation in his native Sri Lanka when water surrounding the island nation rose and swallowed more than 30,000 of his countrymen, women and children on Dec. 26.

Working on sheer impulse, he and his wife, Sugi Selvaratnam, took turns during the next few weeks in an exhaustive effort to collect and deliver supplies to the poorest of tsunami survivors in a tiny, distant village.

The couple alternated duties each day; buying food, water and other goods in the capital city of Colombo where they were staying with relatives, and driving the truck full of stuff across treacherous countryside and into their adopted hamlet in the eastern province of Batticaloa.

"They would drive eight hours to go two miles," said Selvaratnam's co-worker Rejeanne Bass, who kept up with the project via the Internet. "They were so dedicated."

The Selvaratnams used contacts with a humanitarian aid organization to raise money and help organize a concerted volunteer effort.

Sextus Selvaratnam's fellow employees at the Boardwalk donated nearly $5,000 to the cause, and Seaside Co., the Boardwalk's owners, matched the amount.

Though fundraising efforts for the tsunami victims have slowed since Hurricane Katrina, the Home for Human Rights continues to provide volunteer labor and other resources in the rebuilding of the Batticaloa village, and to follow aid plans the Selvaratnams helped design.

Selvaratnam continues to manage a Web site for the volunteer group he helped form under the auspices of HHR.

"The village is a lot better off now," said Selvaratnam. "They're pretty much settled in."

The relief group has recently moved on to begin helping other, neighboring villages that have received little or no aid, he said.

Maclaughlin's odyssey

Gary Maclaughlin, a construction contractor in Live Oak, had been watching news about Hurricane Katrina two days after the levees in New Orleans broke, when he decided he could sit and watch no longer.

Using a few Web addresses, a telephone and a credit card, he bought an old school bus in Tennessee, and a plane ticket that would allow him to get to it.

A day later, he was loading up the bus with supplies purchased at a local discount store and heading toward the Crescent City.

Maclaughlin spent more than a week making supply runs and shuttling hurricane victims to safety in towns above sea level. He teamed up with a Tennessee relief organization, Plenty, that had raised money for Katrina victims, but which previously had no way of delivering the aid to those who needed it. Maclaughlin enlisted Plenty's resources, including some of its volunteers, to assist in his traveling aid mission. The approach, he says, allowed him to avoid red tape that hampers larger relief projects, and to respond to glaring needs in a spontaneous and immediate way.

When he ran out of vacation time, Maclaughlin donated the bus to Plenty and went home.

"As a result of what Gary did," said Plenty Director Peter Schweitzer, "we mobilized." While Maclaughlin was out driving the bus in and around New Orleans, Schweitzer had continued soliciting donations.

"The checks were rolling in. People had been looking for a direct connection to the hurricane victims," and Maclaughlin provided just that, he said. "It was the easiest fundraising I've ever done."

Schweitzer said he raised more than $100,000 on behalf of Plenty, as a result of Maclaughlin's effort. Volunteers have continued to make deliveries and transportation runs using the school bus, he said. For Christmas, the bus was used to deliver winter coats, blankets and toys to people stranded in Biloxi, Miss.

Maclaughlin said his latest push has been to help Houma Indians and other small indigenous groups along the bayou south of New Orleans. The shrimp and shellfish those populations relied upon are gone, due to water pollution from Katrina. Maclaughlin wants to organize construction workers into teams of teachers so that Katrina victims who were left without means to earn a living can learn new trades.

"It'll be a good gig to get into," he said. "There's going to be a tremendous demand there for construction workers for quite a few years."

Contact Nancy Pasternack at npasternack@santacruzsentinel.com.

Copyright © Santa Cruz Sentinel.

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