Local agency takes a global approach to relief

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Since the tsunami disaster struck South Asia two weeks ago, a New Windsor-based relief agency has worked nearly nonstop to ship more than $1 million in medical supplies to the stricken areas.

Interchurch Medical Assistance Inc., a coalition of a dozen faith-based relief and development organizations, expects to continue the effort for several months, while beleaguered countries undertake large-scale rebuilding. Leading pharmaceutical companies have stepped up donations so that the agency's medical supplies are constantly replenished. And the public response has enabled IMA to buy what it does not have in stock and to ship it by air.

"Many people newly introduced to us are calling to donate," said Vickie Johnson, IMA communications coordinator. "They are personally moved by the tragedy and want to reach out and help in some way."

A shipment of 100 medical-supply boxes, each filled with about 70 pounds of first-aid supplies, vitamins and prescription medicines, left the IMA warehouse in the western Carroll County town yesterday, bound for Indonesia.

"I would like to go with one of these boxes and see what it can do," said IMA employee Rosella Reese, whose personal daily packing best is 30 medicine boxes. "I don't know what everything in here is used for, but I am sure that it all helps."

In the week after the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami, IMA staff quickly put together 75 boxes for Sri Lanka, where that country's National Christian Council, a longtime partner of the charity, coordinated local distribution. Shipping by air - a much costlier method - speeds the process, Johnson said.

"Many airlines are making space available," Johnson said. "Our job is to pack and get items to their destinations as soon as we can."

Warehouse workers cull the appropriate medical products from towering shelves that never seem to empty. Forklifts ferry the items to packers such as Reese, who has 18 years of experience in the job. She quickly and efficiently transfers items to a sturdy carton marked "Tsunami Disaster Relief."

70 pounds of aid

In swift, practiced motions, she weighs items on a nearby scale and fits protective packing material around the prescribed number of medicines. She makes sure each carton has the right amount and the right mix and that it weighs no more than 70 pounds, about the maximum weight that is still easy to handle according to IMA officials.

The reusable cartons contain antibiotics, antacids, wound-care supplies, medicines for respiratory and intestinal ailments, salves for skin conditions, rehydration tablets, iron pills and vitamins for people who might be suffering from food shortages.

A standard medicine box could provide a health clinic with a two-month supply, enough to treat the ailments of about 1,000 people. Tsunami survivors, coping with dire circumstances and multiple health problems, will deplete the supplies much more rapidly, Johnson said.

"The hopeful piece is the coordination of the relief effort from governments, international agencies and church groups in these countries," Johnson said. "Our people on the ground tell us of tremendous devastation but also of the tremendous outpouring that is helping."

Although IMA has never in its 45-year history dealt with a disaster of the scope of the earthquake and tsunami, it has mechanisms in place to handle the herculean job, Johnson said. Last fall, the organization helped Haitian victims of Hurricane Jeanne and the survivors of a volcanic eruption in the Congo.

'Truly challenging'

"What we have been doing the last two weeks has been truly challenging, but it is essentially what we do all the time," Johnson said. "We have received a huge outpouring of cash gifts that is keeping us from depleting our supplies. We have had donations and are purchasing items at discount rates. We are also keeping paper trails, assessing and monitoring so the meds get to where they are supposed to be."

Kathleen Campanella, public information coordinator for the Brethren Service Center, which oversees several charitable organizations from its New Windsor headquarters, said, "We have had networks in place long before the tsunamis. We have just ramped up the effort. After decades of experience, we know how to do it right."

Helping in Thailand

With the Indonesia shipment on its way, the staff will begin preparing medicine boxes for Thailand. Those will be in addition to the dozen Reese packed in one whirlwind afternoon last week at the request of the Thai Embassy.

Two embassy staff members picked up the boxes, briefly toured the 72,000-square-foot warehouse and thanked the staff profusely, said Loretta Wolf, director of service ministries, who has doubled as a warehouse worker and packer during the past two weeks.

"That visit was a nice connection for us," Wolf said. "They told us we are definitely making a difference and that everything we send is appreciated."

In another area of the cavernous warehouse, Brenda Giles puts together basic health kits, filling plastic bags with essentials for good hygiene. Each kit contains hand towels, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush, a comb and other grooming items.

"I am just glad that I can help," Giles said.

Should the need arise for blankets, tents, layettes or school supplies, the Brethren Service Center can respond with those, too, Campanella said.

"If the need is there, we can rise to the occasion," she said.

Information: 410-635-8720.

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