Thirty years ago today...

November 19, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jon Warren for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Thirty years ago, the Cambodian refugee crisis was the catalyst for a relief effort that would later become Mercy Corps. Photo: Jon Warren for Mercy Corps

A friend recently shook my hand vigorously saying, "Congratulations on celebrating Mercy Corps' 30th anniversary!" I thanked him and went on to say that I would phrase his comment a bit differently. But I'll get back to that later in the story.

As the decade of the 1970s came to a close, a horrifying slaughter swept the country of Cambodia capturing the rapt attention of the world in what would come to be known as the "killing fields." The radical communist Khmer Rouge launched a massive wave of barbarism across the stricken nation, killing as many as 2.2 million innocent men, women and children while forcing more than 600,000 refugees into exhile, mostly into Thailand.

Week after week images of the dead and the dying filled the global media. "How could this be allowed to happen before the eyes of the entire world?" I wondered. In November 1979, First Lady Rosalynn Carter traveled to the Thailand-Cambodia border to witness the devastation first hand.

At the same time my wife, Cherry, and I agonized over what we could do if anything. After all, what can one or two people do in the face of such an overwhelming human catastrophe? We approached Cherry's father, entertainer Pat Boone, suggesting that he approach his extensive network of friends and industry colleagues to provide emergency aid to the suffering multitudes. Pat immediately said, "Dan, use my phone and rolodex to convene a group of concerned friends." His wife, Shirley, added, "We'll open our house for a dinner to discuss what we can do together."

I jumped on it, naively placing a call to the White House asking to speak with Mrs. Carter. To my utter amazement, she took my call and offered her support. She dispatched The Reverend Doctor Bob Maddox, a Special Assistant to the President, to our November 19 dinner event. More than 60 leaders from various sectors attended the dinner, which was covered by network TV news and print media.

The meal consisted of rice and dried fish on paper plates, the same diet as most of the Cambodian refugees. By the end of the evening, it was unanimously decided that an urgent fundraising drive would be launched and that I should lead the effort we called Save The Refugees Fund.

Graciously, Mrs. Carter invited me to the White House and requested that I serve on the Cambodia Crisis Committee. I opened an office in Seattle and — supported by the dinner guests and Mrs. Carter — raised nearly a million dollars to send help and hope to countless refugees.

At the end of the year-long project, I was convinced the effort should continue by reaching out to assist in other disasters and refugee scenarios. So in July 1981, Save The Refugees Fund was permanently incorporated as Mercy Corps. Since that time we have worked in 107 countries providing nearly $2 billion in assistance. Today, more than 3,700 staff are on the Mercy Corps team in 40 countries, helping those who are numbered among "the bottom billion" people on the planet.

And it all began with a handful of committed volunteers determined to make a positive difference 30 years ago.

Do we celebrate our anniversary? Let me put it this way. Because incalculable death and suffering heralded the occasion of Mercy Corps' founding, it is difficult to say we celebrate it. We mark it like a somber memorial, redoubling our determination to make the world a better place. The challenges are many but, with the help of caring friends and partners like you, we will continue upward and onward!