Thursday, December 27, 2007

3 Years After Tsunami, Bay Area Residents Still Helping

3 Years After Tsunami, Bay Area Residents Still Helping

By Sherri Ackerman

Published: December 25, 2007

TAMPA - A sign hanging outside the meeting center in the Indian village of Cuddalore offers words of inspiration to residents who had little to motivate them three years ago.

"I can, so I will," it reads.

The day after Christmas in 2004, a monster tsunami in the Indian Ocean devastated parts of Southeast Asia. Cuddalore, a port district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, lost nearly 500 residents – many fishermen at sea.

A world away in Tampa, physicians and well-known philanthropists Kiran and Pallavi Patel ached to help. Along with friends Bella and Yogesh Patel, the couple began a fundraising campaign to rebuild Cuddalore and provide for its remaining residents.

Dubbed Project Hope, the complex includes an orphanage and school for more than 450 children. There also are homes for more than 200 widowed, poor and abandoned women who learn about computers, sewing and other skills in a vocational training center.

In less than a year, the Patel Foundation for Global Understanding helped raise $400,000, with much of it coming from prominent donors in the Tampa Bay area. But dollars also came from school children at the Academy at the Lakes in Land 'O Lakes, which collected $2,700; and restaurant workers in Tampa who started Waiting for Relief, an effort that raised more than $20,000.

In October, a group of 16 people representing the foundation traveled to Cuddlore. One of them was former University of South Florida president Betty Castor, who now is executive director for the think-tank USF Patel Center For Global Solutions.

For many, it was their first visit to India and the first opportunity to ensure that the money was well-spent, said Sigrid Tidmore, the Patel foundation's executive director. The Patels partnered with the India Heritage Research Foundation, which Tidmore said has a solid track record in social development.

Still, the project took longer than expected. Heavy rains in 2005 delayed completion until the end of 2006, and the various programs took shape during the past year, Tidmore said.

By the time the foundation group came, the village was once again thriving with its women on their way to self-sufficiency. Children were getting adopted. Men were returning to the sea in new boats.

"The neat thing was the pride you saw in the women," said Dianne Blyler, a former Florida Power manager who acted as the trip's photographer.

What she liked about the foundation's plan was how the Patels went about filling a community's need. They asked people what they wanted instead of telling them what they were going to get, said Blyler, who also is working with Tidmore on a new project, Healthy Together Tampa Bay, to educate women on health issues.

A film crew traveled with the group and developed three videos to be shown next month, Tidmore said. One will focus on tsunami relief efforts, which should appeal to hurricane-weary residents along the Gulf of Mexico.

"You can't help but compare it to Katrina," she said of the tsunami's wrath. "When you go out on the beaches, everything is flattened a mile inland."

But there are signs of new growth, she said. Green shoots sprout from trees, still snapped in half from the massive wave. Freshly-painted boats line the shore. Children's laughter once again can be heard in Cuddalore.

Reporter Sherri Ackerman can be reached at (813) 259-7144 or

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