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Compelled to Help in China

Desiree Cooper

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Parents wait to recover bodies of children
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Desiree Cooper: This weekend, the world is haunted by voices from Asia, where natural disasters have wreaked havoc. The death toll from Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar keeps rising. Meanwhile, China is still reeling from Monday's 7.9-magnitude earthquake.

This weekend, Joy Portella, a Seattle native, is in Sichuan province, the hardest-hit area. She arrived on Thursday and has been working with a relief organization called Mercy Corps. She took a break from the efforts to talk to us from her hotel in China. Joy, welcome to Weekend America.

Joy Portella: Thank you for having me.

Cooper: Joy, compare your last weekend in Seattle with the weekend you are having now.

Portella: Well, I can tell you last weekend was not exactly a dream weekend either, because we are responding to the cyclone in Myanmar, though that has been a much slower response to pick up because its been so challenging to get people in there. But we were responding and already had that one huge human tragedy kind of weighing on us. But other than that, I was taking a six-mile run in the sunshine and having a lovely fish dinner with my boyfriend and relaxing on my deck -- and it is a really different story this weekend.

What have you seen so far?

It's pretty bleak, of course, depending on where you are. You know, lots of homelessness -- there were over four million homes that were damaged. Lots of people living out in the middle of the street, no access to water, no access to food, so that's a grim situation. I think the most touching thing I heard was actually from a reporter I was talking to today, who said that they had gone out at one of the unfortunately many schools that collapsed here, and they were talking to parents and were struck by these parents who were waiting around the school to basically have the bodies of their children dug out. So really their whole families had been taken down by this.

Have you ever been in a disaster area like this?

No, I haven't. I've been in some other interesting situations with Mercy Corps, but not an area immediately post-disaster, and it's really a different kind of animal.

How did you prepare yourself to deal with what you might encounter there?

Well, I didn't have a lot of time, because these things happen quickly and you get on a plane and you do it. But it is a 12-hour plane ride from the East Coast, so it's half kind of convincing yourself that this is your job and this is what you have to do, and then thinking on a human level of the tragedy. And kind of steeling yourself to see things that frankly you shouldn't, people shouldn't have to see. But you do.

Joy, why are you there? There are plenty of people watching, and many of us feel helpless, and many are writing checks and donating things. You got on a plane and went there... Why?

You know, this is what I've chosen to do for a living. This is why people work for aid organizations, because they feel compelled to do something first-hand for people in need, and they feel like that should be more than a spare time thing. Which, by the way, I don't think this works for everyone, but you feel like that's what you should be doing for a living.

When you encounter a disaster of this magnitude, do you feel like you can really do something? Or, does it feel like sort of a drop in the bucket?

I think with any big global problem, not even just disasters, your first impulse is to say, "Whoa! That is an enormous problem, and it seems like an intractable problem, and I can't really do anything about it." I know why that's the first impulse people have, because these problems are huge, and they are overwhelming. But when you are out in the field and you see food getting out to people who wouldn't otherwise have it, children who are being counseled post-trauma, who are drawn out of their shells... Even if it's one kid, that makes a huge difference.

Well, we wish you the best of luck.

Thank you so much, Desiree.

  • Music Bridge:
    For All You Happy People
    Artist: Jaga Jazzist
    CD: What We Must (Smalltown Supersound)


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