Toy story

With a truckload of stuffed animals, soccer balls and Frisbees, we head to refugee camps to bring relief to the kids of Sri Lanka.

By Jeff Greenwald

Published January 18, 2005 9:06PM (EST)

For the past week, I have been working with Mercy Corps to distribute emergency supplies. I have loaded plastic sheeting off a helicopter and handed out family hygiene kits in devastated coastal towns. But now there's a new development, one that will move me into the rank and file of the agency's hands-on relief effort.

During a dinner in Colombo, I learn that a Mercy Corps volunteer, Lyn Robinson, is preparing to go shopping with several hundred dollars of private donor money and buy a carload of toys and games. She'd drive to Arugam Bay and distribute them to children in the refugee camps.

As it happens, Nancy Lindborg, the brilliant, vibrant president of Mercy Corps, is in Sri Lanka on a three-day reconnaissance mission. When I tell her about Lyn's plan, she lights up with enthusiasm. It would be marvelous, she says, to make this trip the seed of another "Comfort for Kids" project.

Mercy Corps doesn't often run programs in the United States, but after Sept. 11, it partnered with two New York corporations -- JP Morgan Chase and Bright Horizons (a day-care center enterprise) -- to provide "Comfort for Kids." These were small packages containing morale-boosting gifts for children: colored pencils and crayons, stuffed animals and small toys. In large-scale disasters, children are often left to fend for themselves, as their parents (if they still have parents) manage the rebuilding process. Provided a few creative distractions, though, kids prove remarkably resilient.

Lyn's idea of providing children with toys and games "is a great thing to do," Nancy tells me. "And I'll let you organize it."


"You help take responsibility for it. Work with Lyn and decide what should go into these kits. Find a way to package them. And take a separate vehicle. We can bring more toys that way."

Her invitation is at once thrilling and terrifying. But that's what I came here for: to work with my hands, as well as my head. Luckily, Dwayne Newton, my lifelong friend and a gifted photographer, arrived in Colombo yesterday. He'll work with me, documenting the purchase and distribution of the toys.

Lyn is a wraithlike blond from Oklahoma with boundless energy and an upbeat breadbasket twang. Based in Sri Lanka, she was vacationing in Phuket when the tsunami hit; a passionate runner, she was forced to run for her life -- sprinting uphill through knee-deep water. Now she's back in Colombo, dividing her time between her work in wildlife conservation and volunteer work for Mercy Corps.

She's thrilled by Nancy's interest and schedules our shopping expedition for mid-afternoon. We'll scour the local toy and stationery shops, trying to put together comfort kits that make sense.

Lyn, a Mercy Corps administrator named Surangani, and I slouch into dense Colombo traffic at about 3 o'clock. For reasons that now elude me, we think that it's going to be easy. I suspect it's because we are blissfully ignorant; we imagine we can walk into any store and buy hundreds of cricket bats, dozens of stuffed dolphins, and scores of coloring books. The reality is more like a Keystone Kops scavenger hunt. We spend hours darting around town, buying a sack full of rubber balls here, a shopping cart full of volleyballs there, a bag of balloons somewhere else.

By the end of the day, sweating and covered with grime, we've managed to obtain two volleyballs nets, eight cricket bats, 10 soccer balls, 60 stuffed animals, five dozen tops, 96 hair clips, and six Frisbees. There are huge omissions in our purchases; it's unlikely that any kid of the male persuasion, between the ages of 10 and 12, will be comforted by one of our cuddly parrot dolls or Barbie pencil cases. But we got what we could find, and, hey, that's why they call it a pilot program.

The familiar tones of "Hava Nagila" chime from my cellphone and summon me to the lobby of our hotel at 7 a.m. Two pickup trucks await, one with Lyn and her driver, the other for photographer Dwayne and me. At quarter past 7, full of avocado juice and coffee, we set off on a 10-hour drive, 200 miles due east, bound for Arugam Bay, with a full load of toys and games.

It's lusciously cool as we drive into the hills. Toque monkeys scamper across the roadside and ibis sail through the air. Sri Lanka's hills are among the world's most famous tea-producing regions and we pass numerous plantations and British colonial estates. The variety of vegetation is extreme, from rice paddies to palm trees, eucalyptus groves to rubber trees. Nearing the town of Kaslanda, we reach the high point of the trip -- about 3,500 feet above sea level -- and stop at a roadside store to pick up another dozen rubber balls. The towering veil of Diyaluma Falls appears on our left; after sampling a local brand of ginger beer we begin dropping, twisting ever downhill toward the Tamil communities and police check posts of the east coast.

The sun's still up as we enter the town of Pottuvil. Here, Mercy Corps has been helping the fishing community rebuild its boats and reweave its nets, setting up cash-for-work programs, and distributing sport kits, school supplies and other items. But they've got enough money, and some of the locals are more concerned about the future than the present. "If people really want to help," one local man tells Susan Romanski, who runs Mercy Corps' office, "tell them not to send us money. Better they should put that money away and use it to come back here, as tourists, next year."

As we arrive, Susan, a slender, round-faced dynamo whose work as Mercy Corps' Emergency Program Manager routinely lands her in the planet's hot spots, is in a state of beatific mania. Yesterday, she was approached by a camera crew from "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Oprah, apparently, has a personal interest in Arugam Bay, as one of her producers lost a friend in the tsunami there.

The crew seemed harmless enough, Susan says, filming her as she struggled to coordinate relief for the 3,392 families in the immediate area. They shot a few scenes of the local devastation, chatted with Susan about her biggest challenges ("the scope of the disaster -- and making sure all of the camps get equitable relief"), and disappeared. Today, Mercy Corps headquarters calls Susan to relay a giddy fact: Her segment is airing on "Oprah." Mercy Corps, along with two other nonprofit agencies in Sri Lanka, will share a million-dollar grant from the talk-show philanthropist.

Susan is afraid to check her e-mail and rightly so; if she is indeed on "Oprah," her marriage proposals alone must number in the thousands. Instead, she calls an evening meeting of our staff at the private house we're bunkered in. It's a thick, tropical night; despite the ceiling fans, mosquitoes feast on our calves.

"These people," Susan tells us, indicating the local staff, "have been out all day, visiting the camps and trying to figure out what people actually have. It's always changing. People are coming in from everywhere, dropping off food and nonfood items; sometimes they just come to the closest camp, plop something down, and leave. So it's turning out that some people have things and some people don't."

Clearly, Lyn and I have not brought enough comfort kits to supply all of the have-nots; one camp alone has nearly 600 children. We decide to try two things. First we'll visit the Savalai camp. Its roster shows 102 children, and so with our stuffed animals, coloring books and rubber balls, we should be able to meet their needs. Next, we'll drive eight miles north to Komari, which is the most distant and neglected of the camps. We'll offer the Komari kids the high-ticket sport kit of their choice -- cricket or volleyball or soccer -- and throw in a Frisbee for good measure. No other relief agency in this area, as far as we know, is addressing the fact that these kids are in dire need of distraction.

To a lot of people, the image of relief agencies in developing countries is Toyota Land Cruisers churning down a dirt road with the windows rolled up and four grim foreign aid workers staring out the windows. That preconception is instantly shattered by Mercy Corps' official vehicles in Arugam Bay: two three-wheeled tuk-tuks that sport the Mercy Corps bumper sticker, emblazoned with three of Sri Lanka's religious icons: Lord Buddha, Lord Rama and Mickey Mouse.

Lyn and I, and local volunteer Harshana, spend the morning driving from one welfare center to another, trying to find out where our toys and sport kits would be most welcome. At each camp we meet the grama niladari, or group leader, responsible for coordinating each center's supplies. These are always men, supervising a governing committee of men and women. Sometimes the G.N.s are individuals who were prominent before the tsunami, sometimes not. In one camp, the G.N. is an older man who displayed great heroism and selflessness during and after the flood.

As we pull up to the Savalai camp, children congregate around us, clutching floppy rabbits and German shepherds. The Red Cross passed through just yesterday, emptying a truckload of used stuffed animals. The G.N. of Savalai is a 48-year-old fisherman named Miran Lebe. When I first visited this camp last week, Lebe was wild-eyed and raging; I thought he was the village idiot. He was still in shock, Harshana explains.

"We have enough for our children," declares Lebe. "Give what you have to the other camps." Before we go, though, he corners Harshana. "We could use some kerosene lanterns," he whispers, "to keep the wild elephants away."

We'll keep our toys, but we do want to offer a sports kit to the older kids. But which kit should we deliver -- soccer balls, volleyballs and nets, or cricket sets? We quickly work out a system. The decision will be made by a committee of kids. A call goes out through the camp and about two dozen children, boys and girls, ages 8-12, are gathered together. Prompted by Harshana, they vote with a show of hands. We expect soccer (or football, as it's known here) balls to be the runaway winner and it is. But there's also a huge demand for Frisbees. Who knew?

Our second stop is a camp located behind the local mosque, not far from the beach. Our gifts are welcome and we hand out stuffed toys and rubber balls in a gleeful but orderly ceremony. Most of the recipients are very young and there are many babes-in-arms. The baby girls wear beautiful, dangly gold earrings, giving them a look of precocious sophistication. The wisdom of wearing jewelry suddenly seems very clear. Sometimes, the only wealth you can hang on to is what's pierced through your earlobes and fastened around your neck.

As we prepare to leave, the G.N. approaches Lyn and asks for the one item most desperately needed by the camp: cooking kits. As things stand, there are so few pots that 10 families must cook their rice in shifts. It's becoming a serious problem with obvious repercussions. "If we don't eat," the G.N. says dryly, "we don't play."

When the tsunami receded, one of the few structures left standing was a popular hotel called the Siam View. During that first terrible week after the tsunami, before the first relief shipments arrived, the owner of the hotel -- Fred Miller, who has lived in Sri Lanka nearly 30 years -- fed the entire community with provisions from the establishment's copious freezers (its generator needed only small repairs to function). Miller is keeping up the practice, providing excellent Sri Lankan curries and ice cold soft drinks to the scores of local and foreign relief workers. It's an oasis of heaven in a vast expanse of hell and the cost to all comers is zero (though donations are more than welcome). It's a terrific example of how the community has banded together and a good place to see signs of optimism.

After lunch, we leave Arugam Bay and drive north, heading through spectacular wetlands teeming with egrets, eagles, kingfishers and ibis. Oxcarts heave to the side to let us by. Our destination is the large camp called Komari, settled by refugees who came from a devastated village still further north.

We'd heard awful things about Komari, that it was ignored, impoverished, and off the radar of the relief agencies. As we approach, we begin to suspect otherwise. The tents are spacious and set well apart, there are decent roads into the compound, and the view of the river is spectacular. As we drive in, we see about 100 kids sitting quietly under an open-air tent, watching "The Lion King" on a television.

The camp seems to have it all: fruit punch, hard candies, everything but buttered popcorn. Discussion with the G.N., though, confirms initial reports. The generator-operated DVD player is a special treat, provided by an expat Sri Lankan from Australia. Otherwise, the kids have virtually nothing to keep them busy: no toys, no games, no Frisbees.

We have no toys for the nearly 600 children in Komari but we will give them a sport kit. The word goes out for a children's meeting and the response is electric. The kids leap up from "The Lion King" and form two groups -- boys and girls -- around us. Harshana takes center stage and conducts the poll.

"How many for cricket?" he demands.

The boys' hands fly up.

"How many for volleyball?" The girls' hands wave.

"And how many for football?" This time, every hand in the group shoots into the air.

Ten minutes later, we witness what must be the most satisfying sight one can see in the world of disaster relief. Scores of formerly listless kids are running and shouting in an open field, their football and cricket games in full swing. Some distance away, the Sri Lankan Army's Special Task Force is helping set up the volleyball net.

We leave before the inevitable Frisbee ends up on someone's roof.

Jeff Greenwald

Jeff Greenwalds latest book, "Future Perfect: How 'Star Trek' Conquered Planet Earth," was recently released in paperback by Penguin.

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