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A soft shoulder for tsunami victims to cry on

Members in Virgina travel to Sri Lanka at own expense to lend a listening ear

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Crisscrossing the devastated country of Sri Lanka in January and February, six members of the McLean Virginia Stake lent a soft shoulder and a listening ear to survivors of the recent tsunami to ease their grief.

Jack Schwab, Scott Dahl, Michele Chalmers, Cindy Musick, Emily Peterson and Anne Steele shared their time and talents, tended the sick and the heartsick, and offered help to many weary residents. From refugee camps to remote villages, they extended love as they listened compassionately to experiences of suffering, played with children, assessed needs and brought in supplies, built provisional homes and cleaned wells.

They traveled at their own expense with the simple goal of finding people to help by relying upon the Spirit. They found their personal answer by drawing upon experience and ability. While every member of the group is a Latter-day Saint, the group did not represent the Church, identify themselves as Church members, nor did they proselytize.

Members of their McLean 1st Ward donated frequent flier miles and supplies, while they founded a non-profit entity called "Sri Lankan Help" to accept donations for the relief effort.

News of the trip prompted others from the McLean 1st Ward and the Langley Singles Ward to join: Sister Musick, a program manager; Sisters Chalmers and Peterson, both nurses; and Sister Steele, a civil engineer.

"These are just normal folks, with families and jobs of their own," said Bishop Jim Johnson of the McLean 1st Ward. "They felt blessed to be able to go, knowing that they represented others who could not."

When the Virginia team arrived, they saw that people were receiving basic needs like food and water, but many psychological needs were not being addressed.

"Their greatest need was emotional support," said Sister Chalmers.

Sometimes that was given through the smallest acts of kindness that eased the deepest emotional pain. Through laughter and tears, quiet moments of just sitting, or giving big bear hugs, they shared love and compassion to people who ached for peace.

One afternoon in Weligama, a fishing community on the southern coast, a shy boy whose mother had died, kept nudging closer to Sister Steele until he wrapped his arm around her leg. She picked him up, and he laid his head on her shoulder. With his small arms tucked tightly to his chest, she gently rubbed his back.

They tried to give people a shoulder to lean on because most survivors had no one — everyone else was suffering also. "Their pain is so overwhelming that some people do not even speak," said Brother Schwab. "Many children are still frightened to live by the water. Sometimes all we could do was just hug them and let them know that someone cared."

For one inconsolable woman who saw both of her children die in the flood, Sister Steele and Sister Chalmers just sat beside her, put their arms around her, and cried with her.

The group traveled the country from the west coast, across the south and up the east coast. When they played with children in Anandapura, an orphanage for the physically and mentally disabled, even the caregivers smiled. When the women started playing children's games with six children at a refugee camp outside of Colombo, the parents brightened to see their children happy.

Brother Schwab, who had three of his seven children die from a rare condition that causes mental and physical disabilities, found particular joy in helping children with similar challenges.

One boy named Denijen from a camp in Batticaloa on the east coast caught his attention. Like Brother Schwab's daughters, Denijen was severely retarded and unable to sit on his own, leaving him to lie on his bed and stare upward.

"My daughter Laura had a special wheelchair, sort of a sling on wheels, that supported her back. I remembered seeing that same kind of chair at a previous orphanage where we'd been and was surprised that such an unusual device was available and leaning against a wall unused.

"I returned to that orphanage and got it for Denijen. When I lifted him into it and strolled him around the camp in the fresh air, he smiled and squealed just like Laura. It gave me such joy to do this for him."

Sister Peterson, a newborn intensive care nurse, was especially alert to the symptoms of sick babies who needed special treatment. Sister Chalmers is a former teacher who brought a list of children's songs that became the basis for the musical games the group played with thousands of children.

"I felt the Spirit through music and I will treasure the look in the eyes of those children as they felt it too," she said.

A grandmother of five, Sister Musick wanted to help the children express their feelings. She gave them pads of paper and crayons, but didn't tell them what to draw.

"Many of the drawings are very poignant," she said, "depicting figures caught up in waves or lying under water." From hundreds of drawings she is compiling a book to raise money for other "Sri Lankan Help" projects.

The group's greatest effort is to provide homes for displaced Sri Lankans. This can mean repairing damaged homes on former home sites or building provisional homes and sanitary facilities. For many residents, the new homes of corrugated tin walls, clay tile roofs, and concrete floors are a major improvement over their former dwellings.

"Sri Lankan Help" is also providing work for people who desperately need employment by hiring local tradesmen. The group has completed 20 reconstructions, with 65 more planned.

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