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High Tide of Help

San Diegans are in the forefront of tsunami relief efforts

STUDENTS AT ST. PATRICK’S PARISH SCHOOL in Carlsbad got to shed their uniforms and wear jeans to school one day if they brought in a dollar for tsunami relief. Wal-Mart stores throughout the county set up plastic bins near the checkout lanes, soliciting donations. Local churches passed out envelopes for parishioners who wanted to give a little extra. A plastic surgeon returned to his native India for a three-week tour of the country’s devastated southeastern coast, donating his services. A Carlsbad pub held a benefit concert.

The Palomar College Foundation set up a relief fund. And dozens of local businesses, from SAIC to the Ladeki Restaurant Group (Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza), mobilized their employees to give, often offering matching donations.

These are just some examples of San Diego’s outpouring of support for victims of the earthquake and tsunami that turned the Indian Ocean into a raging sea of death early on the morning of December 26, 2004, ultimately claiming more than 162,000 lives. Much of this money is channeled to international charities like UNICEF, CARE and the Red Cross. The local chapter of the Red Cross, which has made a remarkable turnaround in recent years, raised more than $300,000 in the weeks following the disaster, according to development director Bob Morris; a $1 million donation, from Qualcomm, was made to the national organization.

Two San Diego charities were at the forefront of relief efforts. Project Concern International, which was founded by a Coronado doctor in 1961 and now has an annual budget of $30 million, received $440,000 from USAID for an integrated package of services, mostly temporary housing and economic revitalization, for four villages in the hard-hit Nagapattinam District in India. Another USAID grant, this one for $237,000, was used to send four mobile health clinics to West Aceh, Indonesia. In the first two weeks after the tsunami hit, Project Concern also raised more than $100,000 in private support for emergency relief work. Local businesses and organizations like San Diego National Bank and Biocom also chipped in. The charity subsequently held more than a dozen fund-raisers and orchestrated a partnership with Safeway, Singapore Airlines and Wells Fargo to send at least 20,000 tons of bottled water to its operations in Indonesia.

George Guimaraes, Project Concern’s president and CEO, met personally with President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. The president was very complimentary, Guimaraes says, telling him and several other heads of relief organizations, “Your work is making a real difference, saving lives and helping people . . . [and] laying the groundwork for peace.”

“The invitation to this special meeting with the president, and the company we were among, is strong endorsement of our work,” Guimaraes says. “We can all be very proud.”

Meanwhile, the Sierra Del Mar division of the Salvation Army, centered in San Diego County, raised more money for tsunami victims in the first two weeks after the disaster than any of the nine other chapters in the West, including the Southern California chapter, which includes Los Angeles.

Public relations director Suzi Woodruff Lacey says Internet donations clocked in at $131,285, with another $32,770 coming from call-in donors. But the local division’s real feather came when Chargers owner Alex Spanos—prodded by a phone call from former President George Bush—pledged $150,000 and opened the stadium’s gates to more than 40 kettle collectors during the playoff game against the New York Jets. Football fans donated an additional $43,406 to bring the chapter’s total contribution to more than $207,000, not counting the Spanos pledge.

“That’s No. 1 in all the West,” Lacey says. “And the money is going directly to tsunami relief. The Salvation Army has thousands of soldiers and officers in virtually all of the areas hit by the tsunami, so we were on the ground moments after it hit, providing food, water and shelter.”

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