World Humanitarian Day

August 21, 2009

I was driving down I-5 on Wednesday, listening to NPR.

They reported a story about bombings in Baghdad, Iraq that killed at least 95 people. And then there was a story about the United Nations’ inaugural World Humanitarian Day, which honors, in part, aid workers who have been killed while rendering assistance to those in need. It  specifically remembers and honors Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad in 2003.

I’ve also nearly finished “Dark Star Safari” by Paul Theroux. He writes about his return to Africa nearly 40 years after he lived in Malawi as a teacher with the Peace Corps. He travels overland from Cairo to Cape Town and recounts an Africa that is much changed…and not for the better. He notes the fancy Land Rovers and trademark white vehicles of aid organizations, symbols for him of the entrenched, institutionalized foreign donors and their programs that often do far more harm than good.

Between the broadcast, the book and our recent board meeting, I’ve been thinking a lot about giving aid and how to make a difference without causing damage. Actually, I’ve confronted this dilemma many times over the course of my life, particularly in my career as a journalist working overseas in areas of conflict. Sometimes humanitarians are not humane.

I remember well a day at a refugee camp in Liboi, Kenya. A photographer with the International Red Cross was shooting portraits of refugees for an ad campaign. He had a a Hasselblad camera in hand and several assistants culling a line of recent arrivals for the most photogenic subjects.

He asked a Somali mother to remove the cloth she had draped over her baby to protect him. He wanted to see the baby’s eyes while the mother wanted to shield her child from the sun and the flies. He posed the women against the shiny seamless white backdrop. She looked uncomfortable but she did what she was asked.

I was appalled. The eyes of the malnourished and starving are particularly sensitive to light. These refugees had risked their lives and crossed the desert to find safety from war and famine in Somalia. They needed sanctuary not publicity.

The photographer was clearly causing the woman and her child distress. And I said so.

The photographer retorted that he was shooting for an ad campaign that would raise millions of dollars for future aid and relief efforts.

So what, I thought. So what if you raise millions with this photo if you cause immediate harm to the very people you say you are trying to help?

As we offer scholarships and funds through Isis Initiative, Inc., I am aware of the profound responsibility to do no harm with our good intentions.

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The late Captain Casey, of Windjammer Company, gave the seed money to start this school on Mayreau, a small island in the Caribbean with one road and 300 residents.

The late Captain Casey, of Windjammer Company, gave the seed money to start this school on Mayreau, a small island in the Caribbean with one road and 300 residents.

Samanda Dorger, our treasurer, brought us a new opportunity to support education on another island, this one in the Grenadines. The story comes to us through Samanda from her friend, Anne Stanley. It’s a chance to carry on a worthy cause and a seafarer’s tradition.

Capt. Cornelius “Casey” Plantefaber died last month after a long and happy career as a tall-ship captain in the Caribbean. Here’s a bit of the story about his work for the school children of Mayreau.

“Casey always seemed to have a love for the water and his career was certainly a reflection of that passion. Initially, Casey ran the Miami Beach Marina for many years until he became involved with Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, working as a Fleet Captain, having been at the helm of every one of its sailing vessels.

This leisure cruise line was based out of Miami. Its ships were former yachts and commercial vessels, refurbished as cruise vessels to accommodate 60-100 paying passengers and 20-40 officers and crewmembers at a time. Casey’s job was a main component in his life as he was truly happiest on the open water. He remained with Windjammer for nearly 30 years, working hard to help others enjoy a relaxing and unique vacation experience.

One of the things that made Casey so special was his gigantic heart, coupled with his spirit of compassion. As a Fleet Captain, Casey insisted that every ship’s captain “adopt an island” to sponsor. Casey chose the very poor and desolate Caribbean island of Mayreau, the smallest inhabited island of the Grenadines, with an area of about one-and-a-half square miles, and a population of about 300.

At the time, this island had virtually no commerce and the only school available was off-island for children who had the means. Casey was instrumental in raising funds to establish a local school. Each year, he challenged passengers to provide backpacks filled with school supplies for the local children. He became a legend on the island and passengers delighted in seeing the children run down the hill to the harbor yelling, “Captain Casey! Captain Casey”!

A scholarship in his name has been established to continue providing educational opportunities for the children of this island.”

Isis Initiative, Inc. promotes healing, communication and connection through education and the arts. We currently offer scholarships to women in the Philippines who have the desire but not the resources to pursue a college education.

We are excited to expand our outreach and honor Captain Casey’s legacy helping the school children on Mayreau.

Alice in Wonderland

August 4, 2009

Alice Anderson cradles a blue lobster on the pier at the Zone C Lobster Hatchery in Stonington, Maine. Blue lobsters are rare and the color is the result of a genetic mutation.

Alice Anderson cradles a blue lobster on the pier at the Zone C Lobster Hatchery in Stonington, Maine. Blue lobsters are rare and the color is the result of a genetic mutation. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

It’s a seven-hour drive one way from Middletown, Rhode Island to Stonington, Maine. I made the trip to visit Alice Anderson. And Maine is one of two states (North Dakota the other) that I hadn’t yet visited.

I’ve known Alice since she was a baby. She’s also a valued member of the Isis Initiative Board of Directors. Since we support women’s education, I think it’s important that we have someone who is actually a college student on our board. Alice offers a young yet wise voice to our meetings and our mission.

Alice will be a sophomore at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, this fall. An aspiring marine ecologist and animator, Alice scored a summer paid internship at the Zone C Lobster Hatchery in Stonington, Maine.

Local fisherman and historical ecologist Ted Ames created the hatchery. In 2005, Ames received a “genuis grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for his work studying groundfish populations along the coast. Using the grant money, Ted now runs the hatchery, where they raise larval lobsters to supplement the Penobscot East Bay lobster fishery in order to secure a future for fishing communities.

Yesterday morning, Alice gave me a tour of the lobster hatchery. In the afternoon, we hiked through a lush forest in the Barred Island Preserve to a cove. Alice explored the tidepools and we braved the chilly water–for about five minutes.

While I was here, we each sent out invitations to our Facebook friends, inviting them to become fans of our Isis Initiative page. Alice sent over 200 invitations; I sent 100. Our fan base quadrupled overnight and we received an island-to-isle Internet donation for $200 from a friend and fellow journalist now calling England home.

I arrived here in the fog and I’ll leave later today under sunny skies…probably. The fog ebbs and flows here like the tides.

Frequent Fliers

March 5, 2009

I need  an airplane ticket for a roundtrip from Portland, Oregon to Manila.

We now have enough money to offer a scholarship to our next candidate in the Philippines. The school year will start in June. I need to go to the Philippines and meet the candidate and set up our program there. The IRS requires us to verify our international work with on-site visits. I last went with my own funds in October 2007 to attend Leah’s Tribute Day and meet her family and classmates. It’s time for another visit, our first since we incorporated in February 2008.

Here’s our concern: we want to spend our current resources on tuition, books, uniforms and transportation for the next student we’re offering a scholarship. Ideally, we need a donation of a ticket (via frequent flier miles) or the money for a ticket for the trip to the Philippines.

I priced tickets on Northwest Airlines, the best value for a roundtrip from Portland, OR to Manila. Right now, a trip in April would cost

a) at least $1100

b) a minimum of 120,000 miles

c) a combo of 60,000 miles and $550

On this trip, I’ll meet with Leah and learn about her first year as an elementary school teacher. I’ll meet with the dean of education and faculty at LaSalle University–Ozamiz. I’ll meet with Governor Ocampos. 

We’ll allocate the funds for the scholarship and I’ll meet the candidate. I’ll gather more video footage and stills to update our Web site to keep our donors and the public informed of our progress.

That’s a lot of value for the investment/donation.

If anyone has a surplus of business miles about to expire, or has miles he or she would like to use to purchase an award ticket for this trip, please contact us. If anyone would like to make a donation to purchase the ticket, please let me know. Or if anyone has any ideas or possibilities that I haven’t mentioned , I’m listening.

Thank you.