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April 16, 2005

Wave of compassion from San Diego, California


Using the Internet to create a wave of relief

In 2004, American life was defined by fear, often unreasoned. As we enter 2005, such anxiety is placed in tragic perspective.

Like many San Diegans, John and Dina Johns have personal connections to the victims of the tsunami and are determined to do more than worry. Using the Internet and the telephone, they’re organizing an electronic campaign to increase private contributions to help Sri Lankans.
John’s wife of 28 years, Padmini (her nickname is “Dina”), is from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Her father was Tamil (Hindu) and from the north, her mother Sinhalese (Buddhist) and from the south. For years, these religious factions have been locked in a civil war, which has killed more than 80,000 people.

No one yet knows if the wave that crashed into Dina’s country will wash away those differences, if only temporarily.

“The good news is that we have received no bad news about Dina’s extended family in Sri Lanka,” says John. “But not everyone is accounted for, and we have received bad news about friends who have been killed and injured. We expect there to be more.”

Only a few weeks ago, John and Dina were visiting coastal towns in Thailand and Sri Lanka that have now been destroyed. “We stood on the same streets and beaches where we now see footage of buildings collapsing and people being swept away,” says John. He describes a Sri Lankan network – one that he hopes to extend – which is efficiently passing along information by phone and e-mail. Similar networks link immigrant groups from Thailand, India, Indonesia and other countries damaged by the tsunami – and other Americans, too.

Some Americans in the wave zone have managed to find working computers and phone lines and have used the Internet to report directly from the scene. Such communication often has the immediacy and pain that CNN’s reportage cannot convey.

For example, in one message forwarded to me, an American tourist caught in the destruction in Thailand wrote, “Helicopters would not land in the area where we had set up our medical area.” Joey (who did not use his last name) described how he and his wife worked with an untrained, ad hoc medical team that included a lifeguard from Australia, a woman from Costa Rica “who used to work for the Red Cross” and a handful of other survivors. The injured were “given shade and water, and vodka was being poured on open wounds to keep infection from occurring.”

He said the most terrifying part of his experience wasn’t seeing the bodies but “seeing mothers holding on to their daughters and sons with this red-eyed stare of where is Dad, and how are we ever going to survive.” He also reported how a Canadian boy who had lost his girlfriend told the couple, “If you love each other, tell each other as much as you can because one day you won’t be able to and …’ and the tears streamed down his face.”

Joey added, “I just hope everyone enjoys the holidays and realizes what kind of chaos is occurring in this part of the world. Please tell your loved ones how much you love them.”
John Johns, who made his fortune as an international entrepreneur, is well equipped to do even more. Generous enough in the past (he is a former volunteer chairman of Camp Ronald McDonald), he now finds that helping tsunami victims has became a “full-time job.” Because so many people know of John’s and Dina’s Sri Lanka connection, they have been deluged by requests for advice on how to help. John, concerned that so much aid is lost to bureaucracy, did intensive research to answer their questions.

Among the many worthwhile organizations aiding the tsunami victims are Oxfam, UNICEF, CARE, the Red Cross/Red Crescent – and an unusual charity called Sarvodaya (

“We chose Sarvodaya because it consists of a vast network of volunteers, mostly villagers, that extends into thousands of villages throughout Sri Lanka,” he says. During the civil war, Sarvodaya worked on both sides of the religious divide. On Wednesday, CNN singled out Sarvodaya for being able to “deliver the right supplies to the right places at the right time.” Sri Lankans in Washington, D.C., and Seattle are already forwarding significant contributions to Sarvodaya. Some international aid groups are flying in planeloads of supplies and will likely work with local partners, such as Sarvodaya.

“Giving directly to a group like Sarvodaya is an excellent means of bypassing the initial layers of bureaucracy and maximizing the effect of your contribution,” says John.

Meanwhile, the network that John and Dina began with their friends is growing exponentially (and can be joined at [email protected]). The couple plan to return to Sri Lanka in May to help create additional relief projects, and they hope to keep members of this network involved with this work, and with Sarvodaya. Interestingly, the Sinhalese word sarvodaya, means “everybody wakes up.”

Good words to live by, in 2005.

Louv’s column appears on Sundays. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or via

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement for the People in Need.