After the Wave

Three months later, local tsunami aid is still adding up


Victor Sivilay, a business owner in southwest Boise, took in the horrifying tsunami images on Dec. 26 and was confident that his cousin, who lives in inland Thailand, would be safe.

Those same images struck Billy Pho, a Thai restaurateur in downtown Boise. Pho also has family in Thailand, but they stayed far out of harm's way in landlocked Bangkok.

Rachelle Brooks, Mason Hawk, Savanna Delavan and Jessica Blevins are sixth-grade students at Taft Elementary School. They have no loved ones in Southeast Asia, but the images were rattling for them as well.

What these very different people have in common is that while none of them were directly affected by the tsunami in Southeast Asia, they all took proactive roles in Boise to help support its victims.

Sivilay, who owns and operates Bangkok Emporium, an Asian foods market on Five Mile Road, put out a donation box in his small grocery store. He says he didn't make a big deal of it to customers, and only occasionally pointed out the tsunami relief sign that hung near his register. He still collected $510 and sent it to the Red Cross.

"Most people gave one or two dollars, so a lot of people helped out," Sivilay said. "We feel bad for the people affected. We just tried to do something good for human beings."

That altruism was echoed by Pho and his business partner Carlos Tijerina, who own Mai Thai Restaurant and Bar on Idaho Street. After the tsunami, the duo was approached by a group wanting to organize a fund-raising drive with other area restaurants. When that movement didn't take off right away, Pho and Tijerina decided to go it alone.

"Two-hundred-thousand people died. That's a lot of people," said Pho. "We just wanted to help."

And help they did. In January and February, three percent from all Mai Thai tabs were earmarked for tsunami relief. The owners raised over $20,000-double the amount Micron gave to the Red Cross-and sent the money to UNICEF.

The Taft students didn't ante up five-digit proceeds from their fund-raising effort, but for a school with 90 percent of its students on the free and reduced lunch program, their effort was hardly shabby. Taft students brought in pennies they or their family had inside wallets and purses, under sofas and in the depths of piggy banks. They scoured up $2,600 by the time their penny drive was over. All the proceeds will go to AmeriCares Foundation, the school said.

Stories like these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the generosity of Boiseans and other Idahoans this winter. According to the Red Cross, Idahoans contributed over $265,000 to the organization's fund-raising efforts this winter, helping it to reach its fund raising goal for tsunami relief. The efforts also prompted the Red Cross to release a statement that said it had "witnessed one of the most generous demonstrations of compassion and support in its 124-year history."

The $265,000 figure may not seem earth-shattering, but this amount represents only the Red Cross's portion of statewide giving. Many large companies with local outposts, such as Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse and Starbucks, raised local funds for their own efforts. And the $265,000 figure is perhaps more significant when one considers it was accumulated without the help of one of Boise's largest charitable givers, The Albertson's Foundation. A spokesperson for the foundation explained that the organization only contributes to educational charities, and therefore did not set up any type of tsunami relief fund.

The $265,000 figure also misses many fund-raising drives organized by local churches, whose gifts often went to their respective national chapters, and from there to missionaries helping with food and medical aid.

"A sign of a healthy church is when its congregation gives," says Pastor Bill Webster of Silver Sage Baptist Church in Boise. "If a church is healthy, it is usually reaching out." Webster's parish is one of several in the community that directed its members to the denomination's national Web site.

According to Ross Burkhart, a political science professor at Boise State since 1997, the proliferation of local fund-raising following the tsunami is nearly unprecedented.

"I didn't follow every fund-raising effort in town certainly, but standing here on campus you'd see things like people offering to walk dogs and giving the proceeds to tsunami relief (in addition to the formal fund-raising drive the university sponsored)," Burkhart said. "That was a first for me."

Burkhart was one of three speakers BSU pulled together in March for three separate lectures concerning the tsunami and its environmental, human and even political impacts.

Essentially, Burkhart says that all our compassion and kindness can play a helpful and key political role.

When it comes to the donations of the U.S. government, "Our giving isn't just altruistic, it has a political purpose, too," says Burkhart. "It helps with the U.S.'s goals of democratization and anti-communism." And given President George W. Bush's passion for freedom and liberty, this makes his meager initial reaction to the devastation all the more dubious.

"Indeed, the Bush administration was slow to react to the magnitude of the disaster and the need for assistance," Burkhart says. "But they did respond eventually and their level of aid has substantially increased [from roughly $15 million to $350 million and counting]."

Ironically, the disaster struck on Boxing Day, which is an important holiday of charity on many Christian calendars. Traditionally it is reserved to box up last year's Christmas gifts and give them to the poor.

For Burkhart, the Christian calendar had a lot to do with people's charitable giving.

"Due to the holidays, people were slow to react at first, but once the images of the tsunami came pouring through our TV sets, the spirit of the holidays took over and people were very generous," Burkhart says. "I was focused on the international relief efforts, but I have to say the continued headlines and appeals for aid locally certainly was impressive to me. The breadth of the appeal was impressive."