I remember the call I got from Indradyumna Swami in Sri Lanka. I was sitting in my office at the World Bank. I had just started a new job and was comfortable and peaceful. “Paul you have to come here. It is really bad. We need to respond to this. It is the biggest natural disaster in modern history.”
I had seen the news, but like most I had not allowed the magnitude of the disaster to really sink in. Television has that affect in that it allows us to watch calamity unfold without being too emotionally involved. I cared for the people, but was not sure how our organization could respond effectively. There was nothing from the past to measure this by. This disaster was unprecedented in every way. The devastation was spread over thousands of miles! I mean, where do we begin?
The swami was insistent. “We have to do something.” I agreed and wondered what I could do. After all I, was a volunteer for Food for Life too, and I had just started a new job that paid well and I was now supporting my new family. Then other calls started coming in. “Paul, what is Food for Life Global doing for the Tsunami survivors?” “How can we help?” There was no turning back now. I had to do something and it had to be fast. I closed the door on my office and turned it into FFL emergency relief central. I set up a donation page and posted a report that FFLG was planning a response. I appealed for volunteers. I had set the ball in motion. Where it would lead I had no idea. But we were in. I was in. We were going to help.
Over the next week, literally tens of thousands of dollars began pouring into the FFLG paypal account and hundreds of people offered to volunteer. People from all walks of life, doctors, lawyers, producers, police officers, bankers…they all wanted to help and were prepared to travel overseas. We received over 500 volunteer applications!
I also got phone calls and emails from FFL volunteers in Malaysia, the Philippines, Hungary, Slovenia and South Africa. They too wanted to do something and I learned that our affiliate in Chennai, India ISKCON Food for Life had actually responded the very same day the tsunami hit, by serving hot meals on the beaches of Chennai. Food for Life was the first responder! This fact would go unnoticed by mainstream media.
All our FFL teams were rallying to the call. But it seemed that logistically for us, Sri Lanka was our best chance to really make a difference. ISKCON had a temple in the capital city, Colombo and an orphanage to take in orphaned children if need be. With the donations that came in I was able to pay to fly some of our most expert cooks and experienced relief workers to Sri Lanka to set up basecamp. The first challenge was gathering information and assessing how to most effectively respond. With hundreds of thousands of survivors spread over hundreds of miles on the island it was not going to be easy. For the first week things stalled as our team in Sri Lanka debated with conflicting information reported in the news and what they were seeing on the ground. There was also another challenge: agency ego, as many of the more established organizations tried to hog the spotlight and not allow the smaller agencies a chance to help. It was at that time that I flew over to Sri Lanka myself. I arrived and then other volunteers from the USA and Europe began arriving soon after. Within a week we had a team of about 20 people ready and willing to do whatever it took to feed as many people as we could.
Eventually we realized that our best chance of contributing to the relief efforts was by working alongside the Sri Lankan army. Our focus then became setting up our kitchens in strategic locations near where the army was working. We did just that and it was a grand success as our teams engaged locals in cutting vegetables while we cooked and served everyone in shifts. The hot and spicy meals consisting of mixed vegetable stews and rice were prepared on firewood in the hot summer under tents. It was hard work under very testing conditions.
Over the next 3 months over 300,000 meals were served to survivors, some of them orphans who found shelter in the FFL orphanage in Colombo. Food for Life Global raised over $150,000 in donations, with a hefty amount used to help support and expand the orphanage. I was very proud of all the volunteers who left their jobs on unpaid leave, as I did, to try to help people from a far away country. It was a true moment of unity in the world, even more than what many Americans experienced with 9/11. The boxing day Tsunami will forever live in the hearts of the men and women who volunteered to help rebuild shattered nations.
It was a turning point for Food for Life Global as it was to be the first time our organization would coordinate emergency relief on a global scale. Food for Life Global was there in full force bringing peace and prosperity through the liberal distribution of pure plantbased meals prepared with love.