During the days immediately following the tsunami on December 26, 2004, as images of devastation across southeast Asia flooded the media, Gordon Morton, Jr. and his colleagues were desperately asking each other the same question: What can we do?
Gordon, who holds the title of Executive VP of Sales and Marketing at his company and is one of its cofounders, remembers turning to Carolyn Anderson, the companys executive in charge of all their philanthropic efforts, and saying, Weve got to do something!
Gordons company has an especially strong connection to Thailand. Their product is based on the Thais national fruit, and the countrys culture is indelibly interwoven into the companys genesis. Several times a year, they take each generation of newly titled leaders to Phuket, Thailand for a one-week retreat.
This was our neighborhood! says Gordon simply. We had to find some way to help.
Gordon Morton, Michael (from the Farang Jai Dee organization), Joe Morton and Bryan Davis at the villagers' boat construction site. (Gordon, Joe and Bryan are three of the company's six founders.)
The villagers lived in tarps propped up with sticks on the temple land while their new homes were being built.
But as great as the need was, finding an effective channel for helping proved extremely difficult. Despite the tremendous outpouring of financial and humanitarian aid, Gordon and his colleagues knew that a great deal of needand assistancewould end up slipping through the cracks of bureaucracy. You know what its like to go to the DMV here in the U.S. just to get your drivers license. You can imagine the red tape you face when youre trying to get something massive done through governmental channels in a third-world country. Too often, the money doesnt actually reach the people who need the aid.
And even in private efforts, Gordon points out, there is often a big disconnect between response and genuine need.
I went there in February, just weeks after the disaster, and was stunned at what I saw. People from around the world had heard that a lot of the local residents had their clothes washed out to sea, so aid organizations had responded with donated clothing. But Thailand is one of the biggest clothing manufacturers in the world! They had already taken care of their own clothing needs, just within their own community, within the first 48 hours.
Now, Gordon explains, eight weeks after the tsunami, huge cargo loads of clothing had arrivedmuch of it winter clothes.
Boots, coats and mittens, for people living on the equator! And they had nowhere to put them, so they ended up stacked in hangers at the airport. They ended up reselling the clothes on the open market just to get rid of them.
Finding the Project
In February, Gordon flew to Thailand in search of the right project. Through a local connection he met a group of Germans, who introduced him to a gentleman who works for the German consulate. (There is a substantial German population in Thailand.) The man told him about a troika of corporationsa German corporation, a Belgian corporation and a Swiss corporationgoing in together on an intriguing proposal to help a unique group of families.
These people had been squatting on government land on a little fishing island called Ko Prah Thong, about three hours north of Phuket, living hand to mouth through their little fishing economy. Strictly speaking, they werent really supposed to be there.
In fact, Gordon explains, these families are not exactly considered Thai and dont even speak official Thai. They are called Morgans. They have no birth certificates or other ID and are not officially recognized by the government. They are as marginalizedliterally, off the coast in their little fishing villagesas a people could possibly be.
In a bureaucratic sense, they dont really exist.
These are the kind of people who fall through the cracksand normally, there is no way they would ever see any of the massive outpouring of aid flooding into southeast Asia. One out of seven of them had lost their lives to the disasterand those who were left were living under blue tarps, with no sanitation, no means to fish or live. Everything they had, their little tin shacks, fishing boats, everything, had all been washed away.
The proposal Gordon heard about was a plan to help the Morgans build a brand new community. However, they were drastically underfunded. Gordons company joined them as the fourth member and only American corporation involved, and the project moved forward.
Reestablishing a Culture
The plan was to purchase some nearby forested land, have it cleared and prepared, build roads and infrastructure, including power and a community center, and expand the two local schools.
One of them, a pre-school, we really had to build from the ground up, adds Gordon, and the other, a K-through-8 facility up the road, we had to enlarge, because the kids we were bringing in would need to join the local school system.
Finally, they would complete the new community by building housing for the 32 families. And rebuilding home meant more than housing. Along with a place to live, the Morgans needed a means to live.
They had utterly lost their livelihood, explains Gordon. Fishing is what they knew, what they existed onbut that industry had been destroyed for them.
So they created a project based on creating a boat-building facility.
After the disaster, there was a massive need to replace all the boats that had been destroyed. We took half the adults, trained them and paid them to build boats, which they could then sell on the open market.
And the other half of the adults?
We taught them how to build and paid them to build their own housesso they had a livelihood while they were building the homes that they would themselves move into.
It was intense to coordinateand it went flawlessly.
Working with third-world projects, says Gordon, there are very few times when you get the sense of satisfaction and efficiency that we had with this project, on all levels. It worked.
Over the course of the year, the Morgans went from having a hand-to-mouth existence through fishing, where they would have enough fish to eat and some left over to sell; to having no boats, no housing and no livelihood, living in huddled tarp shacks with bacteria-infested water pooling around them; to having the nicest homes they could have even begun to imaginequite humble by American standards, but beautiful and quite well made.
And they have a whole new set of highly marketable skills as well. Many of these people are not going back to fishing, now that theyve discovered boat-building.
It puts a whole new spin on the saying, Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
This is the kind of project that, if it were left up to huge governmental organizations, would never have happenedwhich is something that makes it especially satisfying for the team at Gordons company.
So often, with these kinds of projects, reflects Gordon, you dont get the closure or conclusion youd like to see. Sometimes when youre trying to take care of abused kids, for example, it feels endless, because there is no end to the influx of abused kids who need help.
But in this case, the project did come to a very fulfilling closure indeed. This past October, several dozen Morgan families, 112 people in all, moved into the 32 buildings that comprised the new community theyd built side by side with their benefactors.
Farang Jai Dee
The project is called Farang Jai Dee, which means foreigner with a good heart.
The name sounds a little awkward in English, Gordon explains, but in Thai it has a lovely lyrical lilt to it and the Thai people find it quite catchy. When we wear our Farang Jai Dee tee-shirts there, people walk up to us, say the Thai equivalent of Cool! and grin.
At the same time, the name also reveals one of their biggest challenges.
Our project includes the word foreigner, and we actually had to worry about the implications of the fact that we were foreigners feeding the locals. Part of third-world politics is that you want to make sure you dont cause anyone to lose face. You dont want to look like youre trying to embarrass another party.
To solve this, they coordinated their efforts with the local Buddhist monk.
There is a temple for every town in Thailand, which means there are thousands of temples, and thousands of monks. We arranged for the local Buddhist monk nearest to us to serve as our projects face, so to speak, so we could get things done and still have the appearance of being a local effort, so we wouldnt insult or slight anyone.
A problem became increasingly evident the nearer they got to completion: they were outpacing the aid efforts of many of the government projects.
There was a project up the road from us being run by the Thai royalty that was lagging well behind ours. We actually had to drag our feet a little bit at the end, so that we wouldnt look like we were trying to show them up.
We wonder aloud, how does a busy corporate executive find time to actually go into the field and get involved with a project like this?
Gordons answer comes without hesitation. You dont. Nobody finds the time to do something like thisyou have to make the time. You have to design it into your schedule from the start. Rolling up your sleeves and getting involved has to be a priority, a central part of how you do business.
If you dont, he adds, you wont see the results. A project like this, if you dont chase it constantly through the pipeline, will die as fast as it gets started.
Charitable work, if its done right, is actual work. Its not just writing a check and posing for a photo op. You have to get involved. Theres a tremendous amount of minutiae that has to happen, making sure everyone locally is okay with what youre doing and that everything goes smoothly. If you funnel international money like this incorrectly, instead of helping people, you can become part of a scandal! If you dont get personally engaged and do the project right, you wake up one day and discover that all the money you raised is goneand some official somewhere has a new Mercedes.
It does take serious time. Just flying to Thailand, door to door, takes well more than a day, and then its another day just getting up to the project and getting back. But you have to go if you want to make sure its going right. If you dont watch it, it doesnt matter how good the paperwork looks here in the United Statesover there, the project could evaporate into nothing.
And when you do actually go there and see the problem right there in front of your eyes, and see in person how much effort it really takes to correct a disasterwhether its tsunami relief work in Asia, medical attention for kids in Peru, or building orphanages in Africait makes an impression youll never forget.