Monday, July 12, 2010

Our Humanitarian Mission Ends

Our humanitarian work as volunteers for LDS Charities in Ankara, Turkey, has ended, and we look back on it with great satisfaction. We worked with local organizations that were already accomplishing good things, and we helped them identify projects that would help the people they helped become more self-reliant. We bought from the local economy and sometimes worked with other organizations (such as local Lions Clubs) that could provide other services, such as painting or providing consumable materials.

We couldn’t help everyone who approached us. The organizations had to meet some specifications; for example, they had to have good leadership practices and well defined goals that included making their clients more self-reliant. Occasionally we visited organizations which were fairly well equipped, and we knew our money could be better invested in much needier ones. Our interpreter became expert at bargaining, and often vendors were so impressed with our charity that they gave us a discount or added their own donation to our order. Our projects only included long-lasting goods; in other words, we didn’t buy paper or other disposable supplies. Here is a summary of some of the work we accomplished.

We helped 12 schools. In Turkey the government builds the school, pays the teachers, and provides a few basic textbooks. Each school must rely on donations for even the most basic needs beyond that. Some of the schools we helped were special schools for disabled students, even one for children with leukemia. Some were regular schools in neighborhoods with poor, immigrant parents. One of our most satisfying projects was to provide simple whiteboards for the sixteen classrooms and bulletin boards for the hallways in a school in a poor neighborhood. When we visited the school after their installation, it was wonderful to see student art filling the hallways and visit classrooms where that small change had made teaching so much more effective. We built science labs in two schools, so students could perform experiments instead of simply reading about them. We bought many computers, projectors, storage cabinets, student lockers, desks, tables and chairs. We bought abacuses, puppet theaters, and other educational toys. Each school was different, and we met many wonderful people who were working very hard to improve education for Turkey’s children. The young children were very sweet and loving to us. They called us “Aunt Elizabeth” and “Uncle Ron.” We loved them, too!

We worked with six organizations that serve the blind. Because of so many close-relation marriages, there are many handicapped people in Turkey, and there are many organizations that try to help them live independently. We bought three shipments of canes for the blind, one of them being very small canes for use in an elementary school for the blind. We bought electronic readers which greatly enlarge print so that partially-sighted students could read regular texts in addition to Braille. We also bought tables and chairs for an organization that tutored blind high school students so that they could pass the university entrance examinations. It was wonderful to see successful blind university students return to coach other young blind students. (Many blind students have successful careers in government and law.) For two different organizations we bought computers and specialized software so blind students could get aural feedback as they typed.

We worked with eight different medical organizations. Our donations ranged from highly technical surgical equipment for a university hospital (for life-saving operations on newborns) to very basic medical equipment (blood pressure and glucose measurements devices, etc.) for health clinics in poor neighborhoods where they lacked even the most basic equipment. We bought an X-ray developer and other medical equipment for TB clinics. We bought portable sonogram units for nurses who visit pregnant women in villages without medical care. We completely outfitted a medical exam room for a facility for disabled youth. Some of our most heart-wrenching visits were to homes where they care for the elderly and completely bed-ridden. We were able to buy adjustable hospital beds and patient lifts, and it made us very happy to know that we made many lives more comfortable.

We bought regular and arm-braced crutches and donated many wheelchairs. It was very touching to see families carry their disabled members into the wheelchair donation ceremonies, because we saw very clearly that one wheelchair liberated at least two people—the disabled person and the caregiver. LDS Charities is one of the largest distributors of wheelchairs in the world. Most of our wheelchairs are currently produced in China, but we were able to participate with specialists who came from Salt Lake to investigate a factory in Ankara that may produce some of the “rough rider” wheelchairs that are so helpful to strong young people. We completed an order for 250 wheelchairs, but it will arrive in the next few months and our replacement couple will distribute them.

Some of our most rewarding experiences were in helping people to become employed because we know how essential work is to personal happiness. We helped a cafe run by schizophrenics. We visited that place several times and loved the young people who were grateful to have a place where they could work and associate with others who understood their problems. We bought some computers and a projector for their “book corner,” and many students and people came to learn more about this disease, which is not well understood in Turkey. We helped establish a sheltered workshop for people who are paralyzed. We purchased industrial sewing machines, and the organization provided training and job placement as possible. We bought industrial sewing machines for a women’s prison so that women inmates could receive training during their incarceration and become employed after release. We were impressed with the intensive training program the prison provided, which ended in a license to open a tailoring shop. Visiting a Turkish prison was an experience in itself!

One of the goals of LDS Charities is to provide comfort and aid to those in distress. Once there was a flood in Istanbul, and we were asked to join the couple who lived there. We used $15,000 from our humanitarian account to provide a down payment on immediate assistance—hygiene kits and blankets—for those who suffered. We helped to distribute a few kits, but we worked with the municipality, who provided volunteer labor to assemble the kits and distribute them—about $200,000 worth. When an earthquake occurred in Eastern Turkey, where there is no one from LDS Charities “on the ground,” the Humanitarian Fund contributed $200,000 to the Red Crescent so they could provide hygiene kits and blankets for the victims. One of our favorite projects to relieve suffering was to provide winter boots for a whole village school. The village was so poor that when it snowed, parents kept their children home because they didn’t have warm coats or good boots. We provided the boots and our interpreter found another organization who donated new jackets. That was a wonderful project!

In total, we spent over $200,000 on humanitarian projects. Recipients tried to thank us, and we always reminded them that we were just representatives of LDS Charities and that the money came from small donations made by many people all over the world. For those who are regular donors, thank you! We can assure you that your donations are very carefully and thoughtfully spent.

When we left 18 months ago, we felt we were making a sacrifice. Now we realize that it has been an honor and one of the great experiences of our lives. We’re very grateful to our family who encouraged us to come and especially to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for this amazing opportunity.

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