In The News
By KEVIN VOIGT
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
January 7, 2005
Stephen Huang's job is both grim and gratifying.
On Dec. 30, the 57-year-old charity worker surveyed the scene in the seaport town of Hambantota in southeast Sri Lanka, where the stench of the dead filled the air, arms and legs stuck through the rubble and blackbirds descended to feed on carrion. Five days later he flew to the devastated Aceh province of Indonesia, the hardest-hit area after the Dec. 26 earthquake, to complete his fact-finding mission for the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Taipei-based Buddhist organization that provides disaster relief.
It's the kind of work that the Taipei native has done since 1994, when he gave up his lucrative textiles and property development businesses to dedicate his life to volunteer work. Mr. Huang has walked across the war-torn steppes of Afghanistan, spent millennium New Year in a Venezuelan town decimated by mudslides and hopped the first available flight to New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"When I was in real estate, I would do a US$1 million deal, and I would be happy," he says. "Then the next day, you're worrying about taxes, you're worrying about reinvestment. But doing this...you see the results of providing tents, blankets and clothes...(victims) hug you, they cry, they kiss you."
In the days since the earthquake shook the lives of millions around the Indian Ocean, an unprecedented wave of charity has rippled across communities around the globe as governments, businesses and individuals pitch in to help tsunami victims. Aid organizations report that donations have been coming in at a record pace (though they are still less than what is needed). So, too, are individual offers to contribute not only money, but time -- a noble if often unrealistic sentiment. The regional headquarters of Unicef has received many such offers, but the time needed to manage untrained volunteers usually negates whatever benefits they bring, says spokesperson Madeline Eisner. Volunteers with a useful expertise, she adds, are another story.
People like Mr. Huang, on the other hand, made charity a passion long ago. Below, Personal Journal examines the lives of six individuals who have dedicated their lives toward a greater good, often forgoing high-flying careers and top salaries for work that feeds the soul. All were dedicated to helping those in need before the waves struck, and all plan to continue their work long after tales of the tsunami drop off the front pages and television screens.
For most, altruistic pursuits came after a spiritual crisis, but all are driven by a belief that cynics might say is naive, and others will find inspirational: That one person can make a difference.
Says Mr. Huang: "The most important thing in the world is to help people, to enlighten their life, to (help them) find a good way out of a terrible situation."
Like millions of tsunami victims, Dr. Siven Seevanayagam knows what it is like to have a home suddenly taken from him. The ethnic Tamil native of Sri Lanka was a 21-year-old medical student in his hometown of Colombo when, in July 1983, race riots broke out across the city, destroying his family's home and forcing them to flee the country. "I was frustrated with my family, I was hot under the collar about what happened -- I felt someone should pay," the 42-year-old physician recalls.
After his family immigrated to Australia, Dr. Seevanayagam continued his medical studies at Monash University. Today he is a cardiothoracic surgeon at Austin Health at the University of Melbourne, where he also teaches.
After the Sinhalese and minority Tamils in Sri Lanka called a cease-fire in 2002, Dr. Seevanayagam and a group of doctors raised cash for medical facilities in the Tamil-controlled areas of northern Sri Lanka; today the group regularly sends doctors to help train staff and consult with patients. In the past two years, Dr. Seevanayagam has made five trips to volunteer his expertise to help Sri Lankan patients and lecture medical students. "I consider Australia my home, but at the same time we have an absolute moral responsibility not to forget where we came from," he says.
On Dec. 26, reports of the tsunami disaster started coming in from his native Sri Lanka and around the region. Seven days later, Dr. Seevanayagam led a group of eight doctors to Colombo with plans to establish a field hospital along the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka. It was the culmination of a harried week trying to assess needs from afar and tearing up schedules and holiday plans to raise cash and gather a medical team. Some of the doctors spent the week busily translating guides on water purification, hydration, antibiotics and disease prevention into local languages. "Disease is our most significant concern right now," notes Dr. Seevanayagam. "But there's a paucity of information."
Though he has overcome the anger of his youth, the nation's violent past weighs heavily on Dr. Seevanayagam, who asked that his photo not be used for this story for fear it may draw unwanted attention to the mission. "We would like to think people have risen above racial politics, but these kinds of things are unpredictable, and that's a significant concern for our families," says the father of two daughters. "If humanity can't prevail (now) in this situation, it never will."
Dr. Seevanayagam plans to maintain medical aid to the area by rotating teams of doctors into Sri Lanka throughout the crisis, but that won't end his commitment to his homeland. Although he could make more money in private practice, he plans to finish his career in the public sector in Australia. "I feel an enormous debt to Australia -- it's where my family got our life back," he says. "But after I retire here, I would like to finish by going to Sri Lanka and working there for four or five years. It's the least I could do."
Nelson Yau used to teach multinational companies how to sell their products in China. Now the 49-year-old Hong Kong native spends his days studying the Bible with prisoners in Thailand, where he and his wife have been based since he retired last year. During the tsunami crisis he has been helping the Hong Kong Evangelical Community Church connect with churches in Phuket so that food, shelter and work can be made available to those left homeless or jobless by the disaster. "Someone said there are two disappointments in the world -- not getting the things you want in the world, and getting what you want," Mr. Yau says. "I enjoyed the material side (of wealth) -- getting the latest computer, the latest phone. But I felt all alone."
The evolution from business consultant to philanthropist began in 1997, when Mr. Yau hit bottom. He entered his business career "with one purpose in mind -- to make a lot of money," he says. And he succeeded, serving as general director in Shanghai for Swedish management consulting firm Mercuri Urval. "I was very lucky, very successful, and I reached a point where I reached my (financial) goals," he says. "I had a nice home, a chauffeured car...but I got lost in the system." He was spending evenings out drinking, often not coming home, until his wife left him to go live in Canada (she has since returned to his side). "I was not happy, and I started to look for the reason why."
His first stop was traveling to Tibet for 10 days of contemplation, "but the only thing I learned there was that Tibetan monks want to immigrate to the U.S.," he says. "I left empty-handed and empty-minded." His search continued until a friend invited him to a gathering of 500 Christian businesspeople in Hong Kong in 1999. "Here was businessman after businessman, going to the microphone and talking about their lives, and I found out they were going through the same thing as me," he recalls. "I found the answer, and it's in the Bible."
His spiritual journey culminated in quitting his job last year to move with his wife, Jo Ann, to Bangkok to start Christian ministry work, using their personal savings. The couple, who had fallen in love with Thailand years ago on vacation, also are taking time to learn the language. Besides their prison visits, they regularly provide assistance at Karen refugee camps in Mae Sot near the Burmese border. They also helped build the Cherngtalay Christian Church in Phuket, which the tsunami spared.
With Mr. Yau's assistance, the Hong Kong church has rented two houses to host displaced families, and so far has provided salaries to eight jobless residents who used to work at local hotels (they are now serving as temporary translators in Phuket hospitals and at city hall during the rebuilding effort).
Mr. Yau plans to focus on tsunami relief aid for the next year, but in the long term he plans to expand his work with prison ministries to southern Thailand and open half-way homes for former convicts.
"There are so many things down the road for me to do," he says.
You don't have to step off the career path to devote yourself to a good cause. Just ask David Sutherland, who as a managing director at Morgan Stanley, runs tax practices across Asia. Despite a job that keeps him on the road a third of the time, flying everywhere from Japan to India, the 44-year-old American is chairman of International Care Ministries, a Christian aid group that provides schools, medicine and food to slums on Negros Island in the Philippines.
He also is on the supervisory board of International China Concern, a philanthropy that provides residential care for disabled orphans in rural China, and he financially sponsors a shelter in Bali that houses 35 street children -- all while raising three teenagers of his own.
"By far the biggest question for professionals is, how do you do charity in bite-size pieces?" he says. "If you say yes to every opportunity, you will be very quickly swallowed up. You have to view your time as a scarce resource."
Mr. Sutherland and his wife, Deanna, have a long history of focusing on Asian charities. In 1987 they spent five months volunteering at Vietnamese refugee camps in Hong Kong and teaching English to Beijing law students. His career in tax law took him to Wall Street law firms and a stint in the U.S. Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton negotiating tax treaties with Asian nations.
When he joined Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, he began looking for charities to help. "We were looking for organizations to work for that are indigenous, not part of big international agencies," he says. "Somewhere we can provide leadership and donate our skills -- the big (charities) already have that."
They also sought charities that their three teens -- Kent, Corrie and Dillon -- could be involved in. "We wanted to integrate family time with charitable work," he says. "That sort of serves a dual purpose (for time management)...now our kids have friends in the Philippines, China and Bali."
Working with International China Concern has a special resonance for the family -- the group is housed in the same Hunnan Province orphanage where they adopted their daughter, Corrie, at the age of four. "That was too much of a coincidence for us not to get involved," he says.
Mr. Sutherland spends 10 to 15 hours a week working on his various charities. Six times a year he travels to the Philippines, often with his family in tow, to monitor the progress of International Care Ministries. The charity, which works in cooperation with 600 local churches, provides regular medical care for 37,000 people. It also provides medical aid and helps prostitutes find alternative work.
"In Hong Kong, we live in such a comprehensive community -- you think everyone lives like this," he says. Visiting the Philippines, he adds, "you realize that (many) more people live in abject poverty."
"For me, I think God has given us a responsibility to be good stewards to those in need," he says.
Erin Keown Ganju
Erin Keown Ganju has worked in Hong Kong and Singapore as a financial analyst for investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc., headed up business development for nearly three years in Vietnam for consumer-goods maker Unilever NV, and been on the ground for two high-technology start-up companies in Silicon Valley. But while the 35 year old traveled the world in business-class seats, she wasn't getting to know much of the globe. "A Grand Hyatt is a Grand Hyatt is a Grand Hyatt," she says.
That changed in the spring of 2001 when a friend took her to a San Francisco fundraiser for a charity that built libraries and schools in Nepal. After hearing the speaker (John Wood, a former Microsoft executive who quit to focus on charity work), she arranged to have coffee with him a few days later and made this proposal: "Why don't I help expand your charity into Vietnam?"
From there, Ms. Ganju talked her way into becoming the first employee of Room to Read, a charity that in four years has built 1,600 schools and libraries in Nepal, India, Cambodia and Vietnam. Ms. Ganju, as chief operating officer, coordinates the building of new libraries with partner agencies in local countries, spending about a third of her time traveling through Asia.
"In terms of my bank account, I make 50% less than I used to make, but I feel I'm much richer," says Ms. Ganju. "The fun I have at my job is worth more than any paycheck."
As an executive for a charity, part of the enjoyment comes from breaking free of the often mundane interaction of the business world. "When you get a career, you often get pigeon-holed into doing the same work, and working with the same people over and over again," she says. "Now I work with people from so many different backgrounds. Every person we interact with is so positive and excited."
"I think the most amazing growth for me has been understanding how to work in the different cultures," she says. "There are very big differences in customs, habits and work styles. America is more task-oriented, versus a culture that's more relationship oriented. You listen, learn to trust other people's judgment, and develop the understanding of what it takes to get work done."
And the work can often be daunting. "The challenges are unbelievable," she says. "Nepal is under civil war; (areas of India) face massive droughts and incredible poverty. In Cambodia, almost every teacher was killed by the Khmer Rouge and they are literally rebuilding from the ground up."
Downshifting from a corporate life has meant downshifting in other ways. The chauffeured company car has been replaced by a Volkswagen Beetle. The business- class seat has been replaced by a hard seat in the back of a truck. "I calculated my last trip to Asia I spent five hours a day on bumpy roads," she says.
But going back to see what has been accomplished by Room to Read affirms her choice to step off the corporate path. "When you put a library in a community, amazing things happen," she says. "Suddenly kids in landlocked Nepal start asking you questions like, 'What does the ocean look like? What does it smell like?' "
Next time you get into a luxury car, ponder how many homes could be built from the price of the ride. In Dylan Wilk's case, he built 63 homes in the Philippines from the proceeds of selling his BMW M3.
The sale of his car in 2003 was Mr. Wilk's first step toward trading his life as one of the richest young entrepreneurs in the U.K. to pledging to spend the next seven years in the Philippines building homes. "When I sold the car, it was not so much for the money, which I could have paid anyway, but to show a tangible sacrifice," says the 29-year-old Briton.
Mr. Wilk's journey to the Philippines started when he was a 16-year-old school dropout in his native Leeds, going to work at a mail-order aquarium business. After three years he decided "the only way to get rich is to start your own business," and at age 20 he launched Gameplay.com, an online and mail-order video game reseller. By 2001, when his company was purchased, he had 700 employees in eight European countries and his rags to riches story was being celebrated in the British press.
"I had everything I could possibly want, but I realized there was a big difference between pleasure and happiness," he says. "Pleasure is like a fire that constantly needs to be fueled with new cars, new clothes, new things. Happiness can only come by relating to people."
"Over my time in business I found people in their 40s and 50s who were alcoholics, had failed marriages but on the surface seemed to have amazing lives," he recalls. "I didn't want to end up like them."
Then a friend from the Philippines visited Mr. Wilk at the end of 2002, saying she felt regret for coming because the US$1,500 ticket price could have built two houses back home. Through his friend, he learned about Gawad Kalinga, a Christian group with the goal of building 700,000 homes in 7,000 communities in seven years. Intrigued, Mr. Wilk called charity director Tony Meloto and pledged US$100,000 -- and was refused.
"He gave me the shock of my life -- I felt so insulted," he recalls. Then Mr. Meloto explained that the charity prefers donors to not only give their money, but their time. So Mr. Wilk got on a plane to Manila. "What I saw really opened my eyes and changed my outlook," he says. "I went to two (Gawad Kalinga) sites that were completely changed...no more drinking on the streets, no more drugs, very tangible results."
He also was impressed by the community that formed around the homebuilding -- residents take part in the construction, and form associations that maintain the neighborhoods. Says Mr. Wilk: "How can you fight with your neighbor when he helped build your house?"
On the basis of that trip, he returned to the U.K. and told his family he was moving to the Philippines to volunteer full time. "My mother thought I was joining a cult," says Mr. Wilk, adding that she has since visited the Philippines to help build homes as well.
Now, Mr. Wilk devotes time in the field and travels the world raising funds for Gawad Kalinga. "It's been a sacrifice...of my friends, my family, my country," he says. "But it's made my faith a lot more real for me. It's not just the neighborhoods that get transformed, but I have been transformed as well."
"It's much easier (for me) to love now," he says. "You don't get that by just giving your money, but by giving time and seeing the people you're helping."
Stephen Huang never imagined himself becoming a philanthropist. When he moved to Los Angeles from Taiwan in 1974, his only goal was to go to school and help his father's textile business. For 30 years he built up Rio Sportswear Inc., as well as property development and banking interests. But a 1989 visit by dharma master Cheng Yen, who founded the Tzu Chi Foundation, changed his life. "After I saw her I went to Taipei and saw what she was doing -- building a hospital, a nursing college," he says. "This was really very different than what other Buddhist monks were doing."
He began Buddhist studies and started questioning his priorities in life. "Making money only seems to make you greedy," he says. "If you have US$10 million, you want US$100 million. Master Cheng Yen teaches whatever possessions you have you don't own permanently. So I found I should change my view of life."
Taking to heart the foundation's principle of "kindness, compassion, joy and giving through helping the poor and educating the rich," Mr. Huang retired at age 47 to work full time and be first on the scene when disasters strike, establishing priorities and ensuring the aid ends up with the people in need. His travels have taken him across North and South America, Africa, Europe and Asia.
Last week during his trip to Sri Lanka, he led a team of 35 doctors, nurses and pharmacists to Hambantota to establish a field hospital that saw nearly 350 patients a day. "Most were injuries such as cuts and bruises, as well as psychological problems," he says. Tzu Chi is also setting up a 300-tent refugee camp on 50 acres in Hambantota and preparing to send portable toilets, food, medicine, and water-purification equipment.
During the early days following the earthquake, Tzu Chi volunteers were among the few working in Aceh, where they had already been involved in building a village; currently the organization is shipping 30,000 tons of rice to the area.
Although Mr. Huang has witnessed disasters first-hand such as the 2003 earthquake that killed tens of thousands in Iran, he says the tsunami damage is the worst he has seen because it involved so many countries at the same time. "I've never had to work so hard, traveling from one disaster to the next."
"But maybe there are good lessons to learn from the tsunami," he says. "It killed the royal prince of Thailand just as it killed the lowest class of people in India. The disaster had no boundaries. We shouldn't have boundaries, either."