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The Silent Tsunami

Local resident Shanti Cliff co-founded a nonprofit that supports pre-existing programs to combat the silent tsunami of ongoing poverty

By Virginia Lee

As the world still reels from the tsunami that hit countries surrounding the Indian Ocean the day after Christmas, few realize that ongoing poverty in many of those countries--India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia--is as debilitating and destructive to residents as any natural disaster.

"It's as if a tsunami hit our planet every two weeks," says, Shanti Cliff, co-founder of One World Children's Foundation, a local nonprofit whose mission is to support the needs of orphans and abandoned children around the world through grants and student sponsorships.

What's unique about OWCF is that it raises money (and awareness) here in the United States to provide funds for existing programs for basic medical and educational needs in Africa, India, South America and the USA.

"Rather than trying to create something new myself, it is more effective to support organizations that are already there, says Cliff, who believes local people know best how to resolve the problems in their own communities when given adequate resources.

That said, Cliff does spend a lot of personal time and resources to travel the world and visit the programs OWCF is funding, to see firsthand how the money is being used and to meet the children whose lives have been saved. During a recent trip to India, Cliff visited one of the three cancer hospitals for kids that OWCF contributes to and met a little boy whose leg had been amputated. A $5 donation from OWCF meant he could get wooden crutches. As Cliff explains, "Although these hospitals serve hundreds of kids, hundreds of families are living on the sidewalks waiting for an available bed for their children, some of whom die on the streets before they can get help."

She recalls how the seeds of OWCF were sown during a 1987 backpacking trip to the Himalayas. Just out of college, Cliff had the urge to travel and see the world. So, she flew to India, arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai) at 2am and drove by taxi through an area that looked like "burning hillsides," eerily illuminating the night. Once her vision cleared, Cliff realized what she was seeing were people huddled around fires amid mountains of garbage. "My God, that's a dump!" she said. "It's home to them," her taxi driver replied.

Once at her hotel, Cliff's taxi was surrounded by begging children, some with missing fingers, skin diseases and rotten teeth, but all calling, "Rupee, rupee!"

"It was a loss of innocence," she recalls. "My life had always been comfortable, but this was definitely uncomfortable. Someday I knew I had to do something to make a difference. Even if it was just in the life of one person. Later, I read a statistic about the number of people living in the streets of India. It is in the millions. I was so upset by this, I cried for a day. I hardly knew where to begin. Then I thought if I could save the money I spend every week in the local cafes buying chai ($3 four times a week is $12), I could support a child in India for a month."

And that's where it began. In 1998, Cliff established a nonprofit called the Jivan Mukti Foundation, which supported 35 children in the village of the Himalayas where she had lived for a year. The children's fathers had died and their mothers couldn't remarry, so there were few resources to educate these children. The same program exists to this day under the umbrella of OWCF, but we're getting ahead of the story.

In 2000, Cliff saw her friends, Savitri and Michael, who'd just returned from a trip to India. Though they were already sponsoring a child, they wanted to do more, and asked Cliff, "Can we just contribute through your NGO to support these other groups?" The answer to that question was the beginning of the One World Children's Foundation. The three of them decided it was time to create OWCF to fulfill this need.

"I realized that what these organizations need most from us is our financial support. We all have gifts to share in this world. And in this country, one thing we have to offer is our abundance of financial resources. Poverty is not a matter of 'their' problem or 'our' problem--it's a global problem. I see fundraising here as an opportunity for people to have a vital role in the solution," says Cliff, whose charisma has attracted a dedicated core group of community-based volunteers who organize fundraising concerts, workshops and wilderness experiences.

One of OWCF's most successful fundraisers was last year's Deva Premal and Miten concert. World-famous New Age musicians who largely tour Europe, Premal and Miten return to Santa Cruz, May 4, this time at the Rio Theatre. Another popular OWCF event is the annual Mt. Shasta climb over the July Fourth weekend, when the climbers find sponsors for their ascent of this sacred mountain--a climb that requires significant preparation and conditioning.

What distinguishes OWCF from many larger NGOs is that donors can be assured that 100 percent of their money will go directly into the hands of earmarked organizations. Projects include serving orphans of AIDS in South Africa, a school in Zimbabwe, orphans in Uganda, abandoned children in Ecuador, three cancer hospitals and schools in six different parts of India. And here are a few salient facts to keep in mind:

  • $12/month to sponsor a student in India = two tickets to a movie
  • $66/month to feed 25 orphans in South Africa = dinner out for two
  • $150-$250 for a village water pump in India = weekend of skiing
  • $400 for a child's complete lifesaving cancer treatment = priceless
  • The silent tsunami of poverty continues every day. "Imagine a tsunami of the same magnitude as the recent one hitting the planet every two weeks," says a grim-faced Cliff. "That's what we're dealing with on an ongoing basis."

    The next OWCF fundraiser is the Deva Premal and Miten concert on Wednesday, May 4, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, followed by the second annual Mt. Shasta climb over the July Fourth holiday. For more information about these and other OWCF events, visit the website at www.owcf.org.

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    From the March 30-April 6, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

    Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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