Uptown man organizes medical professionals to help tsunami victims
The televised pictures of the Dec. 26 tsunami that ravaged parts of 11 Indian Ocean nations said more than thousands of words could express. Over 150,000 people were killed at last count, with many more injured, homeless and exposed to health dangers.
While many Americans are sending checks to help tsunami victims, few are willing to go as far as Evan Balasuriya to lend a helping hand.
Though the 62-year-old Balasuriya left his native Sri Lanka more than three decades ago, when he saw the destruction left in the tsunami's wake on television from his Uptown home, he knew he had to act.
"You are helpless so far away, he said. "You see everywhere you grew up, people are dead. You are mad because you're helpless. So then you're sad because you can't do anything. Then I decided I'm going to do something about it. I'm not just going to be upset by it."
Balasuriya decided to something spectacular: he's organizing groups of healthcare professionals and others to spend a month in Sri Lanka providing much-needed medical assistance, as well as help rebuilding homes, cleaning up rubble, transporting food and more.
Balasuriya grew up on the move in southern Sri Lanka. His father was a government doctor who was reassigned to different towns every two years. One of the places the family lived was Moratuwa, an east coast town a few miles south of Colombo, the island-nation's largest city.
"I used to live right near the beach," Balasuriya recalled. "I was a kid about 12 years old. I was going to school about a mile inside [the coastline].
"I have lived in all those areas that have gone underwater."
Like many of the coastal towns in picturesque southern Sri Lanka, little remains of Moratuwa but memories and homeless people.
Balasuriya said he hopes to be able to lend aid to the people trying to rebuild the town of his youth. But he said that he and the dozens of Twins Cities area residents who are signing up to accompany him on one of his upcoming trips to Sri Lanka will rely on the help of Father Tissa Balasuriya - Evan's first cousin - to point them where the help is needed most, whether it's in Moratuwa or elsewhere.
"He's like the Mother Teresa of Sri Lanka," Evan Balasuriya said of his cousin. "Before the tsunami, he helped the poor anyway. He has a religious center where he helps the poor."
[Pope John Paul II excommunicated Father Balasuriya in 1997 after publication of a controversial book examining the church's teachings. After international furor, the theologian was reinstated just five days later.]
Evan Balasuriya said he called his cousin a few days after the tsunami struck, asking if there was room for relief volunteers to stay at the center.
"He said sure, he can put up about 100 people. 'Bring them along,' he said. That's the best news he's heard."
Evan Balasuriya put the word out in an e-mail to friends he'd made in his nearly 25 years as owner of Uptown's Sri Lanka Curry House.
The original idea was to take 50 medical professionals over to Sri Lanka for a month to lend whatever assistance they could.
However, because so many healthcare professionals have volunteered, Balasuriya has already laid plans for a second group to go to Sri Lanka after the first group - scheduled to take off in late January - returns. Calls continue to pour in, possibly enabling Balasuriya to lead a third relief group.
He's been interviewing prospective travelers at the Uptown Whole Foods grocery, 3060 Excelsior Blvd., where he teaches monthly cooking classes.
"I'm a businessman," he said. "I ran a business for over 20 years, so people know me. So I thought, who knows, if I mention my name, people might join and follow me to Sri Lanka."
Giving back blessings
Louise Kallard of Princeton, Minn. is going to follow Balasuriya back to his homeland. The hospice nurse will be going with the first group somewhere between Jan. 25 and 30 and returning a month later.
She went to a screening at Whole Foods and "just knew right away that I wanted to go."
The 51-year-old nurse will use her accrued vacation time at her job at the Princeton branch of Fairview Home Care and Hospice to take a month off. For her, this is the opportunity of a lifetime.
"I have a strong faith, and I just prayed about it a lot. I just think this is the biggest devastation that has ever hit in our lifetime and I feel that God wouldn't have put this opportunity in front of me if I wasn't able to do it.
"It's something I need to do. I've been so blessed my whole life, and it's time for me to give that back to people who are so devastated."
Kallard said two other nurses and a sanitation specialist from Princeton will also be part of the relief group.
"Our community has rallied behind us. So they're supporting our trip, and they're raising funds here in the community to take with us."
Kallard said she'll be doing whatever she can to help when she arrives in Sri Lanka.
"I'm real accustomed to working with families in crisis, though I'm sure I've never been exposed to this kind of devastation. I think emotionally I do well in a crisis.
"I'll probably do a lot of triage, first aid, immunizations, helping with infection control and sanitation."
Verna Agujo, a nurse at Fairview University Hospital in Minneapolis, said she got goose bumps as she watched the tsunami aftermath horror unfold on her TV.
"My heart just bleeds to see the injured people," the St. Michael resident said. "I just can't watch this devastating event on TV. I have to do something."
She said she's never been to Sri Lanka; she has no personal connection to the people or place. She simply wants to do what she can to help others, and she's willing to take a financial hit by taking a month off of work.
"I tell people it's OK that I'm poor as long as I'm out there helping people and doing something I love to do."
She said she doesn't know exactly what she'll be doing when she arrives in the island nation formerly known as Ceylon. She said it would probably be a waste of time to make plans.
"I don't think you can really plan for it. I'm just going to do the best I can and use my skills as a nurse. I'll do first aid or whatever is needed. If I have to dig or pick up debris, I'll do that, too."
Helping the helping hands
Balasuriya said only about 20 percent of the 150 or more volunteers ready to go to Sri Lanka are able to pay for their airfare and other expenses. The rest are busily raising money.
Northwest Airlines is helping the volunteers, airline spokesperson Thomas Becher said.
"We are providing some very attractive fares to Frankfurt, Germany," he said.
Because Northwest doesn't fly into Sri Lanka, the relief group will take another carrier for the second leg of their journey. Becher said that though he wasn't sure of the exact fares the relief group members will pay, he said it would be "much less than half" of the usual $1,400 Northwest charges.
He said the airline is waiving fees for excess baggage as well, enabling the volunteers to take medical supplies in addition to their personal luggage.
Balasuriya said he's negotiating with other airlines to get the group from Frankfurt to Sri Lanka.
He said people who are interested in helping can make donations to Help Sri Lanka at any US Bank branch.
You can contact Balasuriya at 382-5599, 920-0363 or firstname.lastname@example.org.