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Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va., Bill Lohmann column

TMCNet:  Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va., Bill Lohmann column

[December 06, 2012]

Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va., Bill Lohmann column

Dec 06, 2012 (Richmond Times-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- BOYDTON You will find the world headquarters of an unusual disaster relief organization in a most unlikely place: a graciously Southern home -- wrap-around porch and all -- on a quiet street in the seat of Mecklenburg County.

The house was built more than 80 years ago with wood that predates the Civil War. The nerve center, if you will, of Humanity Road Inc. is upstairs, in a small office with computers and a global feel provided by a series of clocks on the wall showing the time in Sumatra, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Berlin and Honolulu.

"We're on Skype 24/7, in some form or fashion," said Christine Thompson, a co-founder of Humanity Road along with her twin sister, Catherine Graham. "We have volunteers geographically distributed around the globe." Said Graham: "While we're asleep, somebody else is awake." Humanity Road is a fresh reflection of its times, operating virtually in most cases by using social-media tools to respond to disasters around the world. The stated mission is simply put -- "to educate the impacted public before, during and after disaster on how to survive, sustain and reunite with loved ones" -- though not necessarily simply explained.

The organization serves as a clearinghouse for information and a digital bridge, connecting those in need of help with those offering it, by using Twitter, text-messaging and just about any sort of communications technology you can imagine.

"Who are you Where are you And what do you need " said Graham, posing the essential questions that Humanity Road focuses on when disaster hits. "That's what it boils down to." Humanity Road launched as a nonprofit in 2010, though the idea was born more than a decade earlier, and the seed planted long before that. Graham and Thompson, 53, grew up in Pennsylvania, the daughters of a police officer and a director of hospital volunteers.

"Dad was Batman and Mom was Clara Barton," Thompson said with a laugh. "So it came in the blood." Thompson, who spent her career in the telecommunications field, said the notion of creating something like Humanity Road was spawned by two events in 1999: a catastrophic earthquake in Mexico, in which communication among rescue teams was nonexistent, and civil unrest in Kosovo, where the government shut down telecommunications equipment to prevent the public from using it.

"It was an epiphany for me," she said, "because I realized that I felt every person has the right to call for help, and every person has the right for somebody to be able to receive that call for help." Thompson developed a communications plan for disaster response but couldn't sell the idea to anyone. However, she and Graham put it into action during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008.

They've been operating Humanity Road on a shoestring budget for the past two years, networking with relief agencies, helping in a variety of mostly virtual ways with tornados, blizzards and calamities of every stripe, and developing a system of nimble volunteers who assist from afar by keeping an eye on the world from their computers or smartphones.

The volunteers come from places such as the United Kingdom, Brazil, New Zealand -- and Richmond.

Bettie Tussey, a real estate agent, describes herself as "a bit of an old-aged technogeek" who went online wanting to help after Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2010. She noticed a tweet from Humanity Road, which was seeking volunteers, and signed on.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Tussey monitored an online interactive map where Haitians with access to mobile technology could post requests for help.

"As we saw needs, we matched needs with people on the ground who were able to provide help," she said. "I've done volunteer work for many, many years, and for many different organizations ... and can honestly say this is the most rewarding work that I've ever done -- and it's all done from the comfort of my own home." Thompson and Graham recently returned from a rare physical deployment to New York for Hurricane Sandy. With computers, printers, cellphone chargers, solar-powered lights and an Internet connection, they turned the classroom of a Catholic elementary school into an information command center in Rockaway, a community battered by the storm.

When Thompson and Graham showed up, Rockaway was "a community very much in crisis," said Janice Dean, an environmental lawyer with the New York attorney general's office who went to the school looking to help after two neighbors were killed by a falling tree during the storm.

"At the time, it was very cold, we had no power, heat or light," said Dean, who became an on-site volunteer at the school, which has served 48,000 residents as a relief hub. "Their involvement in the early days, bringing the technology and other resources that they knew from experience would be needed, was absolutely critical to get us up and running." One of the more amazing aspects of the whole operation is that it's based in a place like Boydton, a resilient town with fewer than 500 residents that is trying to bounce back once again, this time from the closing this year of the Mecklenburg Correctional Center, which meant the loss of jobs and revenue.

But that's the beauty of this kind work: It can be done anywhere there's an Internet connection or cellphone service. Thompson and her husband, Dave, moved from Texas to Boydton a decade ago, choosing the town for a number of geographic reasons as well as these: "No strip malls, a very historic community and a community with a strong heart. It seemed like a wonderful town, and it has proven to be a wonderful town." Thompson showed me a photo from their relief hub in Rockaway.

"See those two tables " she asked, pointing to tables bearing printers and other equipment. "They belonged to Sylvia Coleman here in Boydton. I had to do some quick shopping and didn't have time to go out and buy two tables. I said, 'Will you please let me borrow your tables ' She said, 'Why, sure!'" Said Graham: "That's just Southern hospitality." wlohmann@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6639 ___ (c)2012 Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Va.) Visit the Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Va.) at www.timesdispatch.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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