Walking through the crowded city center of Bireuen, Indonesia, Ron Taylor and Elder Jim Greding were greeted over and over again by locals who echoed similar sentiment: "Thanks, mister!" they said.
"They knew we weren't there on vacation…. It is a very remote place on the earth," said Brother Taylor. "They knew the only reason we were there was to help in some way. Even though they didn't know who we represented, they wanted to express their appreciation."
Brother Taylor of LDS Philanthropies —the organization that coordinates, encourages, and facilitates donations to the Church and its various educational and service institutions — was in Indonesia to document the Church's post-tsunami humanitarian efforts. Elder Greding, a Church service missionary, had coordinated the last of the Latter-day Saint-funded projects.
The Church went to work in the region after a tsunami, triggered by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, killed more than 220,000 people in a dozen nations, including Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and India. The disaster also set into motion what the United Nations has called the "world's biggest-ever relief operation."
After offering emergency response, LDS Humanitarian Services began working with community-based organizations to provide longer-term aid and development.
The Church's work in the area is one of the organization's most momentous humanitarian efforts to date — fueled by the donations of Church members and others and marking the first time the organization has offered such long-term assistance after a disaster.
In December 2007, three years after the disaster struck Dec. 26, 2004, Church Humanitarian Services completed their projects.
In a working partnership with other major international humanitarian organizations — including Islamic Relief Worldwide, the International Organization for Migration, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, and International Relief and Development — the Church constructed homes, schools, health clinics and water and sanitation systems in Indonesia.
Bill Reynolds, Church director of tsunami operations, along with Elder Greding and his wife, Karen, and Church-service missionaries Bill and Linda Hamm oversaw much of the Church's work in the tsunami-devastated region.
"The money that was donated and the organizations that were chosen to help oversee the spending of that money, or the construction, were chosen wisely and chosen well, and we feel very good about what we got for the money that was spent in helping and we feel really proud to have been just a small part of this rebuilding process," said Elder Greding, voicing a sentiment shared by all involved.
Major Church projects included:
• The construction of 15 schools, including the training of new teachers.
• The building of 902 homes. The homes were furnished with a starter kit which included one mattress, six plates, six glasses, 12 spoons, one wok, and one stove.
• The construction of three community centers.
• The construction of three health clinics and a wing of an existing hospital. Each was fully equipped, and doctors and medical staff were trained.
• The completion of 24 village water projects, reaching 20,000 people.
• The restoration of shrimp and rice farms.
• The building of large and small fishing boats.
• The purchase of sewing machines, looms and other self-employment equipment.
The longer-term aid and development in Indonesia followed numerous emergency response efforts including:
• 50 pallets/medical modules.
• 20 pallets/first aid supplies.
• 4 pallets of shoes.
• 345 bales of clothing.
• Food, water, hand-held communications equipment and a wide range of other supplies and aid.
Touring the devastated areas in Indonesia, Brother Taylor viewed many of the Church projects and talked to the people who were being helped. Many, he said, were willing to share what they have — mostly what they could grow. "We were offered more watermelons than we could eat, along with coconut juice and papaya. They genuinely appreciate their new homes and the centers. Many I met moved into their homes in August or September of 2007. Yet, they have already planted flowers around the house, made curtains to hang in the house, cleaned the yard, built fences and, in general, done much to make the home uniquely theirs."
During his trip, Brother Taylor talked to numerous people who expressed appreciation for the Church and its humanitarian efforts in Indonesia.
Mohamed Johan, a community and religious leader in Calong, said his people feel blessed to have their new community center, built with Latter-day Saint funds. "It is a fine place where they can all meet together," he said. "It is a place we can pray. It is a place where we can teach the children. It is very useful and will help keep the community together."
Kamaruzzaman (many in Indonesia use only one name), head of the Min Lamteungoh school, a Church-constructed school that was built around a Mosque, said the building will help students left without hope after many of the classmates and teachers died in the tsunami.
"We did not think we would ever have a school this nice," he said. "They have been going to a temporary building for the schooling; a community hall…. The students now have a better school; more helpful to learning. They now have a more hopeful future."
Health clinics are also making a difference. Before the tsunami the community of Ulee Kareung, in the Bireuen district, had a small but important health clinic that was destroyed. Since the tsunami, the community members had to walk 15 kilometers to receive medical assistance. Because of the earthquake, and the tsunami that followed, most of the roads and bridges along the coast were severely damaged or destroyed. And because it was difficult to travel anywhere outside the community for anything — the people have struggled for three years.
"On behalf of the people in our community, many, many thanks," said community chairman Syarman. "God bless you for your help in restoring this service for our use. This is much needed. Our people will be able to get needed medical assistance near their home."
Bireuen mayor, Nurdin Abdul Rahman, expressed appreciation for the medical centers as well as Church-donated water projects in the area. He said he "hopes that this opportunity to work together will help build a bridge of friendship between our two cultures."
Fauziah, a woman in the Bireuen District, said before the water projects it was hard to get good water and it took a long time to get what there was of it. "Now our children will be more healthy and have a better future," she said.
Sukardi and his wife, Rukiah, also found a better future, thanks to Church efforts. Sukardi survived the tsunami by climbing to the top of a coconut tree. Their land was lost to the ocean after the disaster. Like others who experienced the tsunami, he said, it sounded like a large jet plane flying close to the ground.
"We thought it was the end of the world," Sukardi said. "It was unbelievable. Now we start over. But we are alive and we are together and we are happy. We are most grateful for our new home. We thank LDS people for their kindness."
Abdelgadir Galal Ahmed, program manager for Islamic Relief, said that the partnership with the Church to provide relief in Indonesia was a great experience. The Church, he said, "compared to other projects, holds to high standards and good quality work. They have stayed involved from the beginning to the end to ensure their money is used wisely as it was intended."
Even after three years reminders of the tsunami are everywhere. A hand-painted mural on a city wall depicts the disaster. Washed-out roads and bridges have not been re-built. Swamps are left where homes and farms once stood. A rusted ship still stands inland, where the giant wave left it. "You can read about it or you can hear about it, but unless you're there yourself and actually see it with your eyes and feel it with your heart, it's impossible to be touched as much as we have been touched over the last year and a half that we've been associated with this project," said Elder Greding. "I've made the comment to my friends at home that my eyes have seen and my heart's felt things that I'll never be able to describe in words, because I just don't have the ability or capacity to share the things that we've felt and the things that we've seen."
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