Page One

Nonprofit Gets Aid To S. Asia By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday January 04, 2005

The Seva Foundation, a Berkeley-based non-profit organization best-known for its work on international eye care medical programs and community development has been pressed into disaster relief because of the crisis surrounding the South Asia Tsunami. 

The death toll in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and Maldives has reached 150,000 following a 9.0-magnitude Dec. 26 earthquake and a resulting series of deadly tsunamis that overwhelmed coastal areas. A week later, the devastation in terms of deaths, injuries and economic loss remains immeasurable, as disaster agencies scramble to deliver food, medicine, and shelter to affected areas. 

“Since we have a long history of work in some of the areas where the tsunami hit, a lot of our board members and contributors started asking us if were going to do anything,” said Tony Kozlowski, executive director of the 26-year-old foundation. “So last Wednesday, we decided to establish an emergency relief fund. It’s our understanding from our contacts on the ground that the local governments and organizations have the emergency response under control. What they need now is the financial resources to purchase relief supplies.” 

So far, Seva Foundation has raised $50,000 from a direct e-mail campaign to 15,000 Seva regular supporters and another list of 200,000 potential donors. 

On Monday afternoon, as Kozlowski and Seva Development Director Lois Moore talked about the South Asia crisis on the second floor of the foundation’s offices in the heart of the Fourth Street commercial district, a bell-tinkling from the receptionist sent staffers converging on the front desk. “Somebody just brought in a $5,000 donation,” Moore said, visibly excited. “We always ring the bell when a large donation comes in.” 

With one of its affiliated programs—Avarind Eye Hospital—headquartered in the southern Indian state which took the tsunami’s direct hit—Tamil Nadu—Seva was already well-placed to distribute the funds quickly in that area. In addition, Seva has sent money to IMPACT Sri Lanka, an affiliate of an international medical relief foundation, which has used the funds to help set up five emergency health camps in areas where existing hospitals and health centers were washed away in last week’s flood. 

“We’re helping to supply them with medicines and other supplies so the clinics can get up and running,” Kozlowski said. 

But according to Kozlowski and Seva Development Director Lois Moore, the real crisis in the tsunami zone is going to come when the immediate emergency is over, and the focus of international news turns elsewhere. 

“The next phase is going to be the rough phase, when the cameras go away,” Kozlowski said. “One of the largest concerns will be the efforts to stop the spread of disease.” 

A second concern, Kozlowski and Moore said, was the restoration of the local economies. One problem will be the revival of food production in an area where farmland was completely overrun by water. Because the affected areas were in the subtropical to temperate zones with various planting seasons running year-round, production has already been severely disrupted. 

In addition, Moore said, “the coastal areas where the tsunami hit were full of people dependent on making a living from the sea. These are fishermen who have lost boats and nets and their basic equipment. Just the rebuilding of the fishing economy alone is going to be huge. Until that happens, these people are going to continue to need assistance.” 

Kozlowski, who had extensive experience in international refugee work before coming to Seva, said that even with full international support, it is going to take two to three years to bring the tsunami zone back to “some semblance of normalcy. For the first year, many of the people are going to be living in temporary shelters while they are rebuilding their communities. Then it’s going to take another one to two years to fully resuscitate its economic life.” Asked if those communities will continue to need economic assistance during that period, Kozlowski said “Oh, yes.” 

Kozlowski said that information on contributions to the Seva relief effort are available on the foundation’s website at 

Seva was founded in Michigan “basically by ‘60s hippies,” according to Kozlowski. The group later moved to San Rafael and then, eight years ago, to Berkeley. Many of the original members had lived for a time in Indian ashrams (monasteries), and wanted to put their experiences to good use. One of the foundation’s original members was Berkeley’s Wavy Gravy, the foundation’s only lifelong board member. And one of the group’s former staff members, Berkeley’s David Green, won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award last year for his work in providing low-cost international medical care.  

Seva’s founder and current board chairperson Larry Brilliant was part of a medical team that ended smallpox in India. With blindness being one of smallpox’s effects, Brilliant’s work in that area brought Seva into its primary area of concern: vision care in low-income international areas. Helping start the Avarind Hospital in Tamil Nadu, India—currently the largest eye hospital in the world—Seva has expanded its eye care work throughout Asia, including the countries of Nepal, Tibet, China, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. It has also begun eye care operations in Tanzania. 

In addition, Seva works in community development with native people in Guatemala, and with Native Americans out of its offices in Nebraska, primarily organizing people around the issues of native language, cultural preservation, and education. Kozlowski said that Sega is currently planning to expand its eye care work into those two communities. 

The group currently operates on a $4 million budget funded 95 percent by private contributions, and supplemented by government grants.ä