Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas 2006

Three Steps Forward, One Step Back
It is Christmas Day 2006 and I am on an Amtrak train headed up to Connecticut to spend the night with cousins Skip and Sharon Alleman; we hope to build a new Orphans International chapter in Connecticut. Now would be a good time to begin writing Riding the Tiger II, which I envision as a series of blogs (blogger.com) which I will transform into a manuscript during next August’s trip to Africa.

I wrote Riding the Tiger I last August on the balcony of a hotel in Lomé, Togo in West Africa. The book is now on our website (oiww.org), and about 40,000 have now hit the site. I am excited that our new (third) website, designed by Michael Bierman and engineered by Shereen Hall, will be up in the next month. I created the first website, beginning in 1999, and our Indonesian webmaster Edwin Abang created the second (current) version. Our dedicated and talented Communications Officer Felicity Loome has coordinated he inception of our third website.

I transgress. How can I capture the activity that has occurred since August 2006, most importantly the rise – and fall – of our global team, and the great success – and great failure – of our Fifth Anniversary Benefit at the United Nations?

The highpoints of the last five months have been connected to the United Nations. Our benefit held there in the Security Council conference room was brilliant, although it raised significantly less than forecast – or needed. The addition of H.E. Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa to our Global Advisory Board, joining H.S.H. Prince Albert of Monaco, was particularly exciting.

Then only last week we were finally accredited as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), somewhat akin to getting our 501(c)(3) status from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Another highlight is the fact that the United Nations is beginning to work with us around the world, particularly in Haiti where Javier Hernandez has connected us to MINUSTAH (the U.N.’s military mission there), in addition to UNICEF, and various other U.N. agencies…

The downside has been cash-flow, which although enormous after the Tsunami beginning in January 2005, dwindled precipitously after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. We have been struggling for the last year, only now beginning to catch up. This cash-flow shortage has meant that we have often been late paying the $400 per month stipend to our employees around the world, and slowly but surely we have begun to lose our top staff as a result.

I feel strongly it is to our credit that we have recruited and trained some of the best young minds in the non-profit world today – and that they are leaving us to work for prestigious organizations dedicated to improving the world, but I am saddened by their departure none the less.

Ironically, it is the United Nations, among other well-established institutions, that are attracting my departing staff. Orphans International cannot afford health insurance, for example; I don’t even have it. The United Nations can afford to offer it – and they pay on time. Other destinations for my departing staff include Covenant House, New York Cares, and Clearwater Revival, Pete Seeger’s environmental miracle on the Hudson River. All of my departing staff have agreed to continue to work with us in a voluntary capacity, so I am glad that none of them have left embittered.

Where did the Summer Go?
Labor Day Weekend marked the end of summer in 2006 – yet another summer when I was too busy to make it to Jones Beach on Long Island. I had Boris Stankevich of Belarus, Nathan Byrd of Ohio, Felicity Loome of Minneapolis, Andrys Erawan of Indonesia, James Larèche of Haiti living with me in my three-bedroom home-office. James would be the first to head to our newly opening Lima, Peru Administrative Office. The rest were slatted to follow.

Our sights were on the upcoming annual benefit, and it promised to be bigger than anything we had ever done before. Actually it was – three times bigger than the year before at the Harvard Club, with over one thousand supporters showing up, making for a standing-room only, sold-out performance.

But we raised $20,000 less than we had anticipated, and like cast-aways mustering their last super-human strength to row to the island on the horizon only to discover it was mirage, my staff and I pulled toward the benefit, believing it would raise the funds needed to catch-up our cash-flow. It didn’t, and at the next staff meeting I regretfully pledged to do the best I could to get maneuver to the next island, but confidence was shaken and they began to jump ship…

The worst of it was having promised our leadership in Haiti, Sulawesi, and Sumatera that funds were about to be sent, to then inform them that we fell far short of our goal and could not meet our promises. I can only feel how disheartened Jacques Africot in Gonaives, or Monalisa Harris in Sulawesi, or Tasha Rahmany in Sumatera felt to hear that their long awaited salaries had vanished…

Perhaps I am still dealing with issues concerning my parents divorce when I was twelve, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t harbor feelings of betrayal and abandonment learning day after day that my key staff were leaving. Nathan was my designated replacement, and although he had told me six month earlier that he needed health insurance, I was unprepared for him to leave so soon to obtain it.

Spanish-speaking Felicity had promised me that she would assume the team leader spot in Lima, but ultimately decided to stay in New York with another NGO offering benefits.

But definitely the biggest crush to my spirit was receiving notice from Andrys, not only a top-notch staffer who had overseen our project in Sri Lanka from inception, but was also my closest friend and confidant. I had recruited him from the United Nations following the Tsunami in Aceh, but then the U.N. wooed him back – this time to his hometown in Java.

My sister Molly Larkin, a director of Little Brothers/Little Sisters outside Chicago, chastised me for taking his departure personally, and Ethel Grodzins Romm added that a job is not a prison, but it really tore into me deeply and I spent a day feeling like someone had died…

He has made it up to me in five short lines received tonight:

.....You bring out the best of me...
..........With a boss like you, work becomes a pleasure.
.....You bring out the best of me...
..........With a good friend like you, you complete me.

And then there is the story of Yuri Guanilo, which is still unraveling. Yuri is my best field officer, and was the one who created OI Sumatera for Tsunami Orphans from nothing to what it is today (of course, Tasha Rahmany was the local staff who worked with him). Yuri, originally from Peru and very much a part of our decision to located our Administrative Office in Lima, is the son of OI America Board member Rosa Suárez. Sadly, he was unable to leave Indonesia to assume leadership of OI Sri Lanka because we believe he contacted malaria and was hospitalized, and is still recovering in Jakarta. I will return to this story shortly…

Although in my personal life it is usually I who ended unhealthy relationships, I have been dumped before. And I learned that life does not end and that you pick yourself up and move on. My dear friend Ethel Grodzins Romm, who now serves as Orphans International’s Ambassador at Large for $1 per year, arrived on Christmas Eve to give me a coffee mug from the Jewish Museum in New York that states, “Quand Meme.” Translated, it means, “Through thick or thin,” “Whatever it takes,” basically, “Against all odds.”

Ethel’s holiday card stated that ‘Jim Luce would do whatever necessary to move Orphans International forward.’ And I chuckled because it was so true. I had already implemented a new contract that demands of staff a one-year commitment, which if broken would result in the reimbursement of all travel expenses extended. Further, I had already begun an aggressive employment campaign on our own website (oiww.org), on idealist.com, and through the websites of many of me NGO leader friends…

And I have already recruited the first three staffers: Johan “John” Lee Min How, a young Malaysian who had lived in Singapore and New Zealand before coming to New York to study briefly, where I met him. Living today in Bangkok, Thailand, John has agreed to takeover from Andrys in Sri Lanka following training in Jakarta with Andrys and I, and then train further in New York before heading down to assist in the Lima Office.

Then there is Togolese Kwadjo “Vino” Ezobafuno Vidja, a man I met in Lomé last August, who impressed me for his open-mindedness despite being raised in West Africa where more narrow or socially conservative thinking is common.

And then Felicity recommended a friend who had worked with her in Guatemala, a young Argentinean Hernan Gonzalez, who would be able to work with us in El Salvador. Finally, I authorized the employment of another as yet unnamed Sri Lankan, so that we would have a well-rounded international team.

A Baptism in New Jersey
One of the high points of he fall of 2006 was the baptism of Marcus Inigo Respicio, infant so of Rick and Desiree Respicio. This Filipino-American couple, who have contributed their grandmother’s farm in Ilocos Norte for OI Philippines, are a beautiful young family with an extensive and close-knit extended family. They were all there in force on November 19th, two days after our benefit, when baby Marcus was baptized. I had been asked to be godfather to the child, a request that I was honored to accept.

Not knowing what to get that would have any meaning, I remembered in my keepsake box, an old lacquered Japanese box of my mother’s mother[1], was a St. James medal hat had been given to me as a child by a nun who was friends of my parents. I thought this medal, if I cleaned it up and put a new silver chain on, would be a way to connect me to my new grand-son. The medal seems to have been a hit, although one-year old Marcus didn’t seem overly impressed.

I was amazed at the number of Mercedes and Land Rovers on the parking lot of the restaurant overlooking the Manhattan skyline in New Jersey at the reception following the baptism. The Filipino-American community here seemed to have the resources to make OI Philippines happen and I was happy to hear them suggest a spring fundraising event to raise funds to make the Ilocos project possible.

Thanksgiving in Haiti
Doris Chernik, Ph.D., has traveled with me to Haiti almost every time and I believe this was my fifteenth trip since 2001… The children of Agnes Humphrey Leadership School in Brooklyn had invited me to speak to several of their classes which were studying the Island of Hispaniola (The Dominican Republic and Haiti, and how they get along, or don’t as the case may be). The kids were great and we really hit it off. They held a read-a-thon to sponsor one of our kids in Haiti, and sent along a Christmas box of goodies that I carried down with us. Our Haitian children wanted to reciprocated, but had nothing to give at all.

That afternoon we went for a swim in the rain-swollen muddy river, and an idea occurred to me: let’s collect smooth river stones and paint them as a present for the students in Brooklyn. Christmas Easter Rocks! Well, the children helped me gather sixty gold-ball size stones, and we spent hours decorating them. When they dried, Doris orchestrated a team effort to wrap them in multi-colored tissue paper and we loaded them all into a woven basket and I lugged them back to America, setting off many security machines in-between. Airport officials take themselves too seriously, and only one cracked the slightest smile when inquiring what dark sold mass I was concealing in my carry-on. “Christmas Easter rocks!”

A Chapter in New Jersey
One of the great strides forward made in the fall is the inception of our first regularly meeting chapter, the chapter of OI America of New Jersey that meets in South Orange. Headed by Mark Merson, this chapter was born of the grief felt by the Cohen Family when their son-in-law Cresenta Fernando was swept away by the tsunami in Sri Lanka. The efforts of the New Jersey chapter are for building OI Sri Lanka. Tom and Donna Cohen play perhaps the largest role in fundraising for this chapter, and Ariele Cohen and Rajiv Mallick are the co-presidents of OI Sri Lanka. Andrys Erawan, now finishing his work outside Galle, attended a meeting in South Orange with me in September.

Regrets of a Busy Man
As much as I am committed to moving Orphans International forward at all costs – Quand Meme – it does take a toll on me and I must admit having regrets. I have never spent a Christmas without my son for over ten years until today – he is now in my house in Jakarta and I postponed my trip two weeks to push fundraising to close the year out as strongly as possible. I miss being with him today terribly, although I called him yesterday twice. He was excited to tell me of the massive police security in place in Jakarta’s churches Christmas Eve to thwart any possible anti-Christian violence on the part of Muslim extremists…

My father has Alzheimer’s and and this also concerns me greatly. I have been meaning to visit my father and step-mother in Oxford, Ohio since August. But I have not been able to free up a single weekend. In fact, my last days off were in August 2005…

And there is an old friend, Betty Millard, who I missed seeing for her birthday in October. She is in a hospital bed most of the time now and I don’t think she remembers me, but I remember well how much of an impact she made on my life when we had dinner once a week from 1987 to 1991.

I also get frustrated knowing how much I am not doing for Orphans International. Many people think that I have achieved so much, but all I can think of is how many things I have left undone. I lay awake last night – my first day off since August 2005 – thinking of all the things that need finishing before the end of he year.

There is a five-page unfinished letter to Leila Luce, widow of Hank Luce, which has been on my desk for ten weeks. There is a proposal for OI Romania written for the Duke of Bavaria who has already funded us to explore building a project in Transylvania which has gone unfinished for six months, partly because I am afraid of how much of a commitment a project in Romania would be for me at this time.

Then aides of Prince Albert have just instructed us to communicate with three foundations in Monaco, which I need to do as soon as possible. On my last trip to Haiti representatives from a Canadian organization requested that I submit a proposal for funding our educational programming in Gonaives that I have written and our interns have input, but which I need to fine-tune and submit.

Air France representatives asked me to send in a proposal to their Paris office three months ago that my staff has been sitting on. The New York Rotary Club has requested a proposal to continue funding for Rotary House at OI Sumatera for Tsunami Orphans in Indonesia by the end of the year. That gives me three more days…

The Anchor Called Family
Staying with my cousins over Christmas reminded me on the importance of family. Cousin Skip, whose real name is Dudley, as is my middle name,[3] his father’s name, my mother’s middle name, back to Thomas Dudley who co-founded Harvard and served as the Third Governor of the Massachusetts bay Colony.

Skip showed me a family heirloom I had never known about: a 8foot long American flag with 14 stars that was carried in the Civil War – in fact, had bullet holes in it form the Civil War, and the name on the side: James grieves Dudley. This sent chills down my spine; I wan named after James Grieves Dudley, who survived he Civil War and went on to co-found the Kasson’s Locomotive Express from New York City up to Buffalo.

Holding this Civil War flag in my hands I realized of course it should be properly preserved in a museum. However, the feeling of connection to my family, the same feeling I got when I sat at my great-grandmother’s piano in their living room, or admired the bookcase of another relative buried for one hundred years… Or holding four year of Jackson Dudley Alleman on my lap and having him call me “Uncle Jim.”

Being related to the founders of our nation and a MetroCard get me on the NYC subway. However unimportant family pedigree is, family itself is important. Family is crucial to child development and to our lives as adults. It is my goal to make Orphans International a family, and to give back to our children a foundation, a heritage, a connection that natural disasters or epidemics have washed away from them.

Our children deserve to be grounded, locally and internationally, and I am determined to raise our children as global citizens truly grounded to their own and global culture. I want our children in Haiti to realize how important Toussaint d’Louvre is, to realize that they grew up in a program founded by someone whose first ancestors set forth in the America on Plymouth Rock, and to know that it was Jewish support, among other, that will allow them to go to college.

I want Orphans International’s family to be so strong that our kids in Sri Lanka consider the children of Togo their cousins, the houseparents in El Salvador to be their ants and uncles, and their Child Sponsors in the U.S. and Hong Kong to be their grandparents. I want our kids to look up to Tom Cohen, and Ethel Grodzins Romm, and Messan Minyanou, and Doris Chernik, and Miguel Dueñas, and Rosa Suárez - and me – as heir family. Because families do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they based solely on genetics; they are built from love.

When our kids are raised in a home named for my dead brother, Rick Luce House in Sumatera, or in Cresenta Fernando House in Sri Lanka, or Pierre Chernik House in Haiti, they will have more than room and board, they will have more than shelter. They will have a legacy. To grow up in the shadow of my brother and his American roots. To be as good of a man as I understand Cresenta was. To be a global citizen in the shadow of Pierre. We are not growing a network of orphanages alone, we are growing a family. A family of global humanity.

The Second Anniversary of the Tsunami
I was arriving in Manado, Indonesia as the Tsunami swept the City of Banda Aceh in Northern Sumatera. We had already established Orphans International in Indonesia since 2001, and now in 2004 there seemed a desperate and immediate need for help in Sumatera. Within ten days I had our first staff on the ground there, staying with his friends at CNN’s base camp. There was nothing left had he flew in with disposable underarms, canned food and bottled water When I arrived shortly thereafter I was amazed at how hard it was to tell the story, certainly to capture the story on film. There was nothing there: that was the story.

Along the coast where there had been neighborhoods was now open sea. Further inland the ravished land resembled nothing more than a garbage dump – but for as far as the eye could see. However, a never-ending land fill looks remarkably unremarkable captured on film. However, I knew that almost 250,000 people had perished, and later learned that the exact number was hard to verify as the various governments had exaggerated the number up or down for political gain and real numbers were and would remain unavailable.

Although we did not arrive in Sri Lanka until a year later, and have not yet to arrive in Thailand, the damage to those two proud nations was equally horrific. In Sri Lanka I would witness a train hit by the Tsunami outside Galle in which over one thousand people were washed away. There was nothing for Orphans International to do but embrace the children whose mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, grandparents and neighbors had been got by a wall of water as hard as a cement wall, and slammed to their deaths.

Do not imagine innocents being carried off on the crest of waves; the tsunami from what I was told hit with the force of the collapsing World Trade Center and simply killed on impact. It was a disaster of Biblical proportions, and perhaps explains some of the stories I felt implausible in the Bible as a child growing up in Ohio.

Today we have an Orphans International project outside Banda Aceh, OI Sumatera, that we are having a hard time funding because the Tsunami is already becoming a distant memory. So many NGOs raised so much money for Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand – and so little of it went anywhere near the victims of the wave.

In Sumatera, our Indonesian medical team opened a clinic which helped hundreds of families a week. In fact, the very same team jetted to the U.S. six months later to assist disadvantaged Americans in New Orleans – the only medical team in the wake of Hurricane Katrina where the women doctors wore head coverings.

Two years later we remember the dead, work hard to raise as many of the living as we have been able to as global citizens, and implore our neighbors to not forget these children in our care. Today these children are happy kids splashing on the beach, winning Aceh-wide swimming competitions, and proudly pointing to the world map in their wall where Uncle Jacques comes from in Haiti, Uncle Yuri in Peru, and all the other international OI volunteers who took these children from unmitigated Hell after they lost everything to the Tsunami to their existence today.

Please do not forget our Tsunami Orphans on this Second Anniversary.