Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Picture Worth 1,000 Lives

Published Dec. 8, 2006, in the Keizertimes and in the George Fox Journal.

This story begins with a photograph.

An 11-year-old Rwandan girl, Uwizimana, sits on the ground, an umbrella in her right hand and the lifeless body of her brother, 1-year-old Twizerimana, cradled in her left. Tears streak Uwizimana's cheeks and more well up in her eyes as she looks up at someone off-camera. Twizerimana stares, without focus, into the soft light streaming through the umbrella, his mouth hangs agape as if he's seeing something new for the first time.

The photograph changed the course of a man's life.

"My first reaction was, ‘I didn't get there soon enough,'" said Ron Hays, executive director of the Marion-Polk Food Share.

Hays saw the photograph in The Oregonian in July 1994 alongside a story a detailing the hardships faced by Rwandan refugees as they fled the ethnic violence of their homeland.

At the time, Hays was working in children's services, but previous experience as a paramedic had him believing that he could have prevented the death of the child in the photograph.

"I wasn't going to stand by and let it happen again," he said.

Of the many challenges Rwandan refugees faced, waterborne diseases were among the worst. The problem, as Hays saw it, was that such diseases can be treated easily.

"With hydration and some antibiotics, many would not die from them," he said.

As a paramedic, he could start an intravenous drip, which would help those suffering from cholera and shigella recapture some of the nutrients they needed. At the very least, he'd be giving them a fighting chance.

Called to action

Hays laminated a cut out of the photo and packed it with him when he left on a relief mission with a crew from Northwest Medical Teams.

In Goma, Zaire, at a refugee camp, he met a woman and her son who had found a 6-year-old girl in the road and brought her to the team's medical station be treated.

"She was so small she didn't look more than 2-years-old," Hays said.

He spent two weeks feeding her with a syringe before finding an orphanage that could take her in. Because she could cook, Hays also arranged for the orphanage to take in the woman and her son.

Hays sent his bedroll with the child and spent the last week of his stay sleeping on the ground.

He walked out of Goma in a pair of 25-cent sandals, he left behind anything he could survive without and gave items like shoes to people in the refugee camps.

"I found out the girl had died about three weeks after she entered the orphanage, but the mother and her son were alive and healthy," Hays said.

Since that time, his resume reads like a laundry list of the world's crisis regions during the last decade. He was in Mexico after Hurricane Pauline; Honduras after Hurricane Mitch; India after the Gujarat earthquake, New York after 9/11 and Sri Lanka after the 2005 tsunami.

During his crisis response, he embarked on a quest to educate emergency care workers in third-world countries.

"While I was traveling, I met so many people who would have suffered less if they had been cared for properly by the country's first responders. People who were enduring lives of pain that could have been avoided with some basic education," Hays said.

He headed up a volunteer team that crafted a 470-page emergency care worker's manual that's since been translated into the primary languages of more than 1 billion people.

Of all the places he's been and the crises he's tried to remedy, there's one that's conspicuous by its absence: the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Trouble at home

Hays was appalled to learn that while he had been traveling the world putting out fires, a huge one was blazing through his home state of Oregon. The state was ranked No. 1 in hunger.

It reminded him of a Bible verse:

"For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matthew 16:26)

"That was exactly the way I felt, but there were other circumstances that made it a good time for a change," said Hays.

He applied for the executive director position at the Marion-Polk Food Share and was hired in August 2005 – just weeks before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and other areas of the Gulf Coast.

Northwest Medical Teams called him about responding to the area, but Hays could not go. He needed to focus on the more immediate concerns of his neighbors.

It's a task that isn't as simple as having handouts when someone needs them.

"It means building a sustainable system and teaching people how to handle a crisis situation, or food shortage, in their own home," said Hays.

To do so he needs the members of the Marion and Polk communities – all of them – to be on board with the mission of the food bank.

For community members, it means volunteering or finding other ways to help. The effectiveness of the food bank is measured in its ability to connect with the community and its results are amplified exponentially by the number of volunteers it taps.

"We have one woman who is donating birthday packs, with cake mixes and candles, so that any child who has a birthday has a cake. That's a wonderfully small idea that can have a huge impact if more people get involved," he said.

He encourages volunteers to bring along their children and to pass along their noble trait.

"Passing along those values makes anything we start now more sustainable in the future," he said.

The Marion-Polk Food Share need both money and time to eliminate hunger in the two-county area, but the most important thing given by donors of either is encouragement.

"Volunteers encourage other volunteers, they encourage the people like me who are trying to make sure the resources are there when they're needed and they encourage those who are in need right now because they are constant reminders that someone cares," Hays said.

Full Circle

The photograph that inspired Hays now hangs on his office wall in all its harshness and beauty, a gift from the photographer who was also hoping his work would change the world.

Ten years after the photo appeared in The Oregonian, Hays wrote to the photographer, Tim Zielenbach, to tell him of how the photo served as an inspiration.

"I was absolutely floored," said Zielenbach, who now works as a wedding photographer in Savannah, Ga. "It was concrete validation of why we do what we do. Anyone who goes out and tries to tell a story through pictures is thinking about and hoping to move someone to action."

Zielenbach won't take credit for Hays' actions, but said he was grateful to have supplied a spark.

During his next trip to the Pacific Northwest, Zielenbach made a point of stopping in to meet Hays. He brought with him a poster-sized print of the photo.

This story ends with that photograph.

It's a photograph of a girl whose tears inspired a man to travel the world helping anywhere he could – only to find himself back at home – and a boy whose death was not in vain because other lives were saved.

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