Friday, July 23, 2010

Our "KIRF Work": Disaster relief that is small-scale but effective

Mark Kirwin driving through Port-Au-Prince.
Photo: CJ Paone
We started our small foundation KIRF (short for "Kirwin International Relief Foundation") in January 2005 after we returned home after surviving the tsunami disaster in southern Thailand with our children. Since then we have raised funds and have delivered disaster relief supplies to communities of natural and man-made disaster survivors nearly all over the world. Our in Haiti (2010 January earthquake relief), Burma (Cyclone Nargis relief), India (drought relief with KIRF India), Mississippi (Hurricane Katrina relief), Peru (2007 earthquake relief), Tanzania (drought relief with Roots and Shoots) and, of course, Thailand (Andaman Sea Tsunami relief).

Project managing efficient disaster relief can be incredibly complex enterprise in a foreign community and culture. There is the language barrier, a foreign culture and an unknown social network, an unknown transportation network and political structure that has to be worked at a time of, sometimes, near-chaos after a huge disaster such as the earthquake that devastated the government and the Port-Au-Prince area of Haiti.  Because KIRF is a small non-profit, managing the delivery of disaster relief supplies has to be done with extra efficiency. That is why we partner with local people and groups in a disaster area. Their enthusiastic support can make the seemingly impossible aid delivery effort, possible– even in the face of political opposition such as in Burma after Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and and structural violence, more recently, in Haiti*.

Basically, we "help others help themselves" in a respectful and culturally appropriate manner. We do this by working with local contacts and informal aid networks in disaster areas. Informal aid networks are ad hoc all-volunteer groups of good Samaritans who are comprised of locally respected leaders  such as medical workers, teachers, monks, church-leaders, local business owners and others.

Our local contacts come from a variety of sources but since their disaster relief goals are the same as ours, to help people in need directly and with accountability,  KIRF's disaster relief efforts have been pretty efficient and effective. An example of a local aid network would be the monks at several Buddhist monasteries who bravely delivered our aid supplies from the Thai border to the disaster survivors in the Irrawaddy Penninsula in Burma after Cyclone Nargis.The military regime's violations of human rights and obstruction of humanitarian aid for disaster victims was said to be "worse than Cyclone Nargis" according to the president of the Inter Parliamentary Union's (IPU) – a prominent international human rights group.

Angela Kirwin with Tanzanian Roots & Shoots youth.
Photo: CJ Oliverson
KIRF also works with formal aid groups with expert experience in a disaster area. For example, KIRF supported the local Roots and Shoots group in Arusha, Tanzania office with in-kind donations in 2006.**  While in Haiti, KIRF coordinated the delivery of relief supplies with an order of Salesian monks based in the Dominican Republic and identified formerly unknown camps of homeless earthquake survivors right after the earthquake to the US 82 Airborne of the US Army. Read about KIRF's Haitian disaster relief in our February Haitian earthquake posts.

Our foundation is 100% volunteer. We pay our own airfare expenses to disaster areas as do our volunteers. KIRF volunteers are also KIRF donors and have either some experience in the disaster area or have previous volunteer experience with KIRF.  They are used to roughing it in areas where 24-hour electricity and safe drinking water from a tap just doesn't exist.

Our disaster relief projects are small and narrowly focused. Instead of tens of thousands helped, we make a difference for tens of dozens at most. However, KIRF's relief supplies fill the needs of real families in need and help them make tomorrow a better day and a better future more possible for themselves and their children. To read more about KIRF  and our direct delivery of disaster relief and sustainable aid please go to our web site

Thank you,

Angela Rockett Kirwin
Co-Founder of KIRF

*The term "structural violence" was popularized by medical anthropologist Dr. Paul Farmer in response to the political and economic barriers to medical care and health that he witnessed his working-class and peasant patients struggle with as they tried to get the basic necessities for life such as drinking water, nutritious food and access to education and medical care in Haiti. You can learn more about Dr. Farmer's effective work in Haiti at Partners In Health and in the inspiring book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World
by Tracy Kidder.

**Roots and Shoots is an international youth service learning program of the Jane Goodall Institute with  groups of young people and parent volunteers making a difference in their communities all over the world.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Mark Kirwin and KIRF's Haiti relief profiled by Citations Magazine

KIRF's Haiti earthquake relief effort was profiled in Citations Magazine this month. Citations is published by the Ventura County Bar Association. Mark is a member of the Ventura County Bar Association and a principle at Haffner, Haffner & Kirwin as well as 11th Hour Mediation here in Ventura, California.

In addition to KIRF's last disaster relief effort in Haiti, KIRF co-founder Mark Kirwin's personal story that has influenced his work helping others is written about in the Citations article "The Dontquitman of San Buenaventura" >

Thanks to our generous donors and local support here in Ventura, California, KIRF was able to make a real difference for families who lost their homes in Haiti. Mark Kirwin arrived in Haiti on February 7th with local Ventura volunteers CJ Paone and Patrick Rea. Working with a local business owner in Port-au-Prince and his informal aid network of employees, KIRF was able to distribute 15,000 pounds of food relief and supplies in three days.

It's a nice validation for our pint-sized foundation to get some press coverage now and then--for us and for our donors. However, the best validations are the ones that we already have. They are our memories of doing the relief work ourselves, often in a difficult  and tragic disaster area like Port-au-Prince last February, and working with like-minded folks who are there to help, too. And, with them, make a difference.

There are so many stories. True stories. Good stories. Life changing stories. Someday we should write a book.


Friday, February 12, 2010

Haiti earthquake relief: 22,000 pounds of food delivered to survivors in one week

KIRF Director Mark Kirwin and aid volunteers CJ Paone and Patrick Rea from Ventura, California are returning from a challenging but successful disaster relief effort in Haiti this weekend. In spite of the difficult road conditions, power outage, lack of hotels, the fuel shortage, grinding traffic and the language barrier, they were able to accomplish a lot due to their local contacts in Haiti and years of disaster relief experience.

In the first 3 days in Haiti, they, with the invaluable help of local Haitian business owner Lance Durban and the firm Manutech, were able to deliver about 15,000 pounds of food, water and other requested supplies to families who had lost their homes , jobs and, for many, loved ones. Many of the earthquake survivors that KIRF helped were living outside in ad hoc tent camps that were known to only the local Haitians. These families were in desperate need. For many of them their "KIRF family care packages" of culturally appropriate food, water, water filters and other living supplies was the first earthquake relief they had received.

The KIRF volunteers worked with a group of motivated and knowledgeable local Haitian volunteers--employees of Manutech, many who has lost their own homes and loved ones. Together in a hot warehouse the KIRF volunteers and Haitians worked for hours converting thousands of pounds of food staples and supplies, many purchased inside of Haiti by KIRF to help local farmers and venders, into single family care packages. Then, each day before dark, they delivered these packages to homeless earthquake survivors in need.

After only a week on the island, KIRF was able to deliver a total of 22, 000 pounds of food supplies through their local informal aid network with Manutech and our other contacts in Haiti and the order of Salesian monks in the Dominican Republic. We were able to get aid to previously undiscovered enclaves of homeless families and groups of children who were surviving just outside of Port-au-Prince. These undiscovered tent camp location were communicated to other local aid groups and to the amazing US 82nd Airborne soldiers who will be directing delivery of aid to them from the larger aid groups.

To our supporters here in the United States, and to our new friends in Haiti and the Dominican Republic: Thank you.

We could not of done this with out your help.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Haiti earthquake relief: Rain, rain go away...

It's raining now in Port-au-Prince. *sigh* According to my husband who is there, it took them 2 1/2 hours to drive out of the city this morning with the roads more congested and slow moving with the rainfall. (The photos on this post are from yesterday in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel.)

After driving through an early season downpour, they made it back to Santo Domingo finally. The KIRF team is currently working with a local order of Selasian monks to deliver the rest of food, water and living supplies after they return to the United States this weekend. However, it has been decided that KIRF will do more disaster relief in Haiti. We found a great informal aid network developed by the Haitian magnetic components manufacturer Manutech and their employees in Port-au-Prince. By working with the owners and employees of this firm, KIRF have been able to achieve a lot in a very short time:
  • Aid delivery: KIRF purchased, packaged and delivered over 15,000 lbs of food supplies in 3 days
  • Aid assessment: KIRF found new and unknown-to-the-international-aid-community earthquake survivor tent camps and delivered desperately needed food, water and other supplies that they needed
  • Aid coordination: We shared new aid camp locations with larger international aid groups and governmental organizations such as the US Airborne division for future aid support
  • Local rapport and respect: KIRF made lasting connections with local business leaders and citizens in Haiti for future aid work
  • Culturally appropriate aid: we delivered easily utilized disaster relief supplies that the Haitians said they needed and could use
  • Helped Haitian economy in our own small way: KIRF supported local Haitian business owners, farmers and their families by purchasing food relief supplies and petrol in Haiti (whenever it was possible)
  • Efficient disaster relief: over 90% of each donated dollar went to purchasing and delivering disaster relief to families in need in Haiti

KIRF co-founder Mark Kirwin and KIRF volunteer aid workers CJ and Patrick of Ventura, Californai will be returning from Haiti this weekend.

We are blessed. Blessings to Haiti.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Haiti Aid Distribution hindered by crowded streets, fuel shortage (video)

Here's a short video from KIRF's rented van full of food care packages that were needed by one of the hundreds of tent camps just outside of Port-au-Prince. You can see how just getting supplies or medical care quickly from one part of Haiti to another can be a real challenge. The fuel shortage is another issue. Having local Haitian aid partners have been invaluable to KIRF for assessing needs, preparing aid packages, not getting lost, finding fuel, translating, and identifying earthquake survivor communities outside of PAP who have not yet received relief supplies. Our Haitian friends have helped us with all aspects of aid distribution. When we did find a new tent camp or community that needed disaster relief, we shared this information with the US Airborne who then, in turn, would get them more help. This video was taken early this morning just outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Local Haitian aid volunteers helped KIRF distribute to this camp today in PAP

Haiti earthquake relief: Haitian Volunteers & Local Knowledge Invaluable

The key to successful disaster relief in Haiti for us has been working with a local business owner/humanitarian and utilizing an informal aid network of his employees--many who have lost their own homes and loved ones.

This pic was taken this morning of our 3 volunteers working with Haitian aid volunteers in the warehouse. All morning they were busy breaking down food supplies our foundation purchased into distributable family-size packages. The food packages were distributed the same day to people who have not received aid at their camp. With the local lay knowledge, or in other words, local help, we are able to deliver aid quickly to those who need it the most. We (with our Haitian friends/aid partners) have found several small (300 or less) camps of homeless earthquake survivors who have not received aid. We have distributed our family food packages to them using the food ticket system, peacefully. We alerted an representative of the US Army of their locations so these families can get adequate food and water after we leave.

Working with the Haitians has created disaster relief aid distribution that is efficient and that works. The aid packages were comprised of supplies requested by Haitians--they contained culturally appropriate foods, water and requested essentials such as water filters.These were emergency supplies they said they needed until more sustainable solutions can be found.

The conditions in PAP are very challenging due to the totality of destruction and dense population and development. It is taking literally hours to drive a few miles and get anything done. The international donations of food and water has made it to PAP but the problem is getting these essentials to survivors. That is the situation.

On a positive note: Mobile phone service is good in Port-au-Prince. I have been getting text messages, photos, & calls free from my husband's iPhone courtesy of AT&T (until end of Feb we were told). Our donors and family members of volunteers are getting updated with photos & texts in practically real time. The biggest challenge is moving relief supplies from warehouses in PAP to families who need help in the hundreds of informal aid camps.

Photos & video:

Monday, February 08, 2010

Haiti earthquake relief: Tough situation in PAP

KIRF's three volunteers, Mark, CJ and Patrick, will be distributing the food supplies they purchased yesterday in the DR, today in Port-au-Prince (PAP). They spent last night in the city at Patrick's Haitian friend's house that has a security gate. There, they were safe as well as their rented van that was packed with food relief and requested supplies such as water filters, etc.

Their goal is to distribute the first load of food supplies today with a local Haitian aid group. Tuesday and Wednesday they plan to distribute the "new and almost new" children's shoes and water filters in an outlying tent camp.

Getting around PAP is horrendous with the stop'n'go traffic of people and vehicles crowding the roads. The roads are lined with the rubble of leveled buildings and there are few street signs which has made CJ's job as Navigator and Logistics Manager challenging to say the least. Mark, who is doing the driving, said, "The issue right here is not the food, it's the distribution and money. It's a big logjam here." It took him three hours to drive a few miles and fill up their van with gas this morning. He ended up driving eight hours yesterday. They will distribute their first load of food and supplies through the secure warehouse facility of their Haitian host, who is business owner and, after the earthquake, a local disaster relief specialist for a local informal aid network in Port-au-Prince. Nearly all of his employees lost their homes and some family members to the terrible earthquake of Jauary 12th.

The KIRF volunteers are trying to source food and requested living supplies locally in Haiti from now on. That way they help the small local vendors and their families AND they help the hungry and homeless when they distribute the supplies. Much of the time, these groups of people are one and the same. They are working with a local Haitian aid group who is proving invaluable assistance with local contacts, need assessment, security and manpower preparing family care packages of supplies for the homeless. They will be distributing aid directly to those in need the most: hungry, homeless and sad groups of families living in their ad hoc tent camps all over PAP and just outside the disaster zone. It is safer for Mark and his volunteers to work with small groups of earthquake survivors. It is also partnering with the local community and utilizing the informal aid networks of neighbors, local caregivers, health workers, friends and family members. It is more efficient and these people know each others needs better than some strangers from outside Haiti.

There are several international food distribution centers inside Port-au-Prince but the aid is not reaching many areas where people have fled the disaster zone and have no transportation. The inadequate distribution is similar to what happened after Hurricane Katrina in MS and LA that I witnessed. The lack of road access and lack of transportation has made sourcing food and water each day for many homeless impoverished families exceedingly difficult. There is also a shortage of petrol that is further inhibiting aid distribution. However, the Haitians are working hard dealing with a horrible situation, to get aid distributed where it is needed.

PAP is a very urban, very chaotic, and a very crowded city Mark told me. However, the Haitians are nice, helpful and grateful for the assistance. He has witnessed "no aggression whatsoever." He has heard of and witnessed instead, countless small acts of kindness: neighbors helping neighbors, strangers helping strangers.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Haiti earthquake relief: Volunteers from Ventura go for it

KIRF co-founder Mark Kirwin drove into Haiti this morning with KIRF volunteers Patrick Rea and CJ Paone, in their rented Hyundai van packed to the ceiling with food staples purchased in Santo Domingo. All three are disaster relief volunteers from Ventura, California. Updates of their progress have been made via photos, text messages and calls from Mark's iPhone to KIRF co-founder Angela Kirwin (that's me). According to the representative at AT&T, international phone service from Haiti using Mark's iPhone will be free until the end of this month.

As of noon today, California time, they reached Port-au-Prince. "We are in the middle of a huge city. About 1.2 million people are displaced and over 200,000 are dead. No one knows for sure how many," Mark said. "There are tent camps everywhere."

KIRF's efficient 100% volunteer disaster relief effort illustrates the efficacy local contacts, cultural understanding, informal aid networks and lay knowledge in distributing aid to those who need it the most after a natural disaster. With these critical factors, almost any able person can do Stage II (non-rescue, non-critical medical care) disaster relief.

"The Haitians here are very nice, lot's of smiles. They are very busy. They don't like their picture taken [but] there is no aggression whatsoever," Mark said.

Patrick's fluency in Spanish was invaluable in the Dominican Republic in getting relief supplies sold to them at wholesale prices at a super market in Santo Domingo, their van rental, and information about crossing the border into Haiti. His cultural knowledge also resulted in secured parking provided by a local order of Salesians of Don Bosco, a Catholic order dedicated to aiding children of the poor though acts of charity.

Their local contacts in Port-au-Prince resulted in invaluable disaster relief assessment and disbursement information. Local information will ensure that KIRF's food supplies will go to those who need it the most. His Haitian friend's hospitality and local knowledge has been invaluable. He offered the KIRF volunteers his home as a safe place to stay after dark and his local knowledge will help distribute aid at a safe and secure location tomorrow. The KIRF volunteers will seek out local Haitian food vendors when they re-stock the van. This is in an effort to support the local economy. If they are able purchase food from local Haitian businesses, they will be supporting not only the Haitian recipients of their aid but the Haitian families who provided it as well. This plan depends on several factors such as security and market prices.

Friday, February 5, 2010:
Mark and KIRF volunteers CJ Paone and Patrick Rea arrived in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, late at night.

Saturday, February 6, 2010:
Patrick's Spanish fluency helped them tremendously in securing a van and purchasing food supplies at below market prices. Purchased food supplies included: rice, beans, salami, maize (cornmeal), cooking oil, bottled water, canned tuna, pasta and some chocolate. The van loaded to capacity with food supplies was given secure parking at home of the Salesians of Don Bosco.

Sunday, February 7, 2010:
They drove through the armed border crossing into Haiti easily with local lay knowledge gained in Santo Domingo. Mark said that the roads were packed with people all the way to Port-au-Prince. The landscapes were not as arid or denuded of vegetation as they are in rural Bihar. However, signs of poverty are endemic.

"Driving in Port-au-Prince was like trying to drive a van through the Ventura County Fair--or like driving in Gaya [India] but without the cows," Mark said. They met with Patrick's former business partner, a Haitian lives who lives near Port-au-Prince and owns small manufacturing company. He took them to see some small tent encampments of homeless earthquake survivors who were in desperate need of food and water. These camps were too far away from the international food distribution centers and they were not able to get adequat food and water. The KIRF volunteers saw street after street of leveled buildings, people living in make shift tents and miles of devastation in every direction. They saw long lines of women with meal tickets patiently waiting in the sun for a food allotment. They saw many children. They visited with an extended family of 14 made homeless by the earthquake and who now share a single tent in one of the many small tent camps that were all over the city.

The KIRF volunteers will distribute their van load of food and supplies tomorrow with their local Haitian contacts' assistance. They will purchase more food and supplies, locally in Haiti if possible, for more distribution.

We are grateful to our supporters of this relief effort. Without their support, this relief effort to Haiti would not of been possible. Thank you to those that gave us encouragement for this project and helped us find contacts in Haiti. We need more "can-do" positive energy and you supplied it. We are grateful for the generosity of those who loaned valuable gear such as a solar-recharger and satellite phone as well as those who donated the "new and almost new" shoes off their feet (thank you Quinne, friends and the students and parents of Oak Grove School in Ojai). Thank you also to those who trusted us and donated funds and shared their Haiti contacts with us. The local knowledge and local contacts in Haiti were crucial. We are grateful for the sizable sacrifices of KIRF volunteers Patrick Rea and CJ Paone who accompanied Mark to Haiti. They both took a week off from work, paid their own travel expenses and raised funds and brought donations to help the families in Haiti. Wow

We are blessed. Blessings to Haiti.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Disaster Relief in Haiti: challenges ahead for KIRF

We are communicating with people who just got back from Haiti and those who are still there. We know where to go on the island now. The challenge now is getting reliable transportation from the border of the Dominican Republic to several orphanages near Port-au-Prince. Next week it will be KIRF's team of three and thousands of other relief workers from international NGO's such as the World Food Programme, CARE, Red Cross, Oxfam,World Vision, etc.--all dealing with the transportation problem. The stories from aid workers at the border have been "interesting".

The earthquake relief effort in Haiti is an almost over-whelming situation with an entrenched generations-in-the-making- foreign aid dependent economy with socio-economic structural barriers to health, education and financial self-sufficiency by the 95% or so of Haitians who are not elite. And, the country had a failed economy and government-- before the earthquake--due to a variety of reasons outside of the average Haitian's control. This trip may be our biggest challenge yet.

However, I expect success. It will just take some creativity and resourcefulness but we will be able to make a difference like so many times before. KIRF C0-founder Mark has been through rough aid situations in primitive conditions before in areas such as in rural Bihar (India), Cambodia, and indigenous villages in crises mode after being leveled by the earthquake in Peru. The key to success is understanding the culture and the people through local contacts. Mark will be accompanied by two KIRF volunteers: both experienced in traveling in primitive conditions in impoverished areas. And, one of the volunteers has worked in Haiti. If we could get aid into Burma after Typhoon Nargis, we can certainly get aid into Haiti.

Donate to KIRF's Stage II disaster relief for Haiti>
(Donations earmarked for Haiti in the next few weeks will go to helping survivors of the earthquake in Haiti.)

KIRF delivers Stage II relief to people who need it the most but due to socio-economic structural barriers may not have access to it through formal channels controlled by elites.

Stage II relief is disaster relief that occurs generally after the elemental needs for immediate survival such as water, medical aid, food and safety are met. Our stage II relief projects are focused on social, economic and environmental sustainability. We help people regain their financial self-sufficiency and quality of life. Our aid endeavors to be also environmentally sustainable. When coordinating disaster relief in an afflicted area we find local community leaders or humanitarian institutions (schools, medical clinics, churches) and work with them to deliver in-kind aid and aid solutions that are culturally appropriate and go to those most in need.

Read about our sustainable Stage II disaster relief projects at>

Thank you for your support,


Kirwin International Relief Foundation (KIRF)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Earthquake relief in Haiti: Stage I and Stage II (KIRF)

We have been getting a lot of support for our relief efforts in Haiti. We are sincerely grateful for everyone's help. KIRF's Director and co-founder Mark Kirwin is coordinating a Stage II relief effort in Haiti that will distribute relief supplies that are desperately needed and will be distributed directly to those that need them the most.

Donate to KIRF's Stage II disaster relief for Haiti>
(Donations earmarked for Haiti in the next few weeks will go to helping survivors of the earthquake in Haiti.)

Stage II relief is disaster relief that occurs generally after the elemental needs for immediate survival such as water, medical aid, food and safety are met. Our stage II relief projects are focused on social, economic and environmental sustainability. We help people regain their financial self-sufficiency and quality of life. Our aid endeavors to be also environmentally sustainable. When coordinating disaster relief in an afflicted area we find local community leaders or humanitarian institutions (schools, medical clinics, churches) and work with them to deliver in-kind aid and aid solutions that are culturally appropriate and go to those most in need.

Read about our sustainable Stage II disaster relief projects at>

If you want your dollar to go to immediate survival supplies and services--Stage I relief--I would recommend the organization Partners In Health. It was begun by Dr. Paul Farmer over 20 years ago in Haiti. The best selling book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder documents in his years in Haiti and the many issues he and his "outcome orientated" clinical care has faced in order to get the poorest people healthy again. Dr. Farmer has published quite a few books and research papers in peer-reviewed journals on medical care and socio-economic barriers to health in developing countries, also. We have not worked with Partners In Health but their reputation is excellent and Dr. Farmer's story was an inspiration.

Donate to Partner's In Health "Stand with Haiti" Earthquake Relief>

There are many other organizations that truly help others in time of need efficiently, compassionately and with years of expertise doing disaster relief. Those organizations are too many to adequately name here. If you already made a donation to an organization such as Direct Relief International, Red Cross, Oxfam, or CARE, you did a good thing to help others in need. What matters is that we do something to help...

Thank you for your support,


Kirwin International Relief Foundation (KIRF)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Earthquake Disaster Relief in Haiti

KIRF expresses its sincere condolences to all of those who were injured and lost, family and friends, because of tragic earthquake in Haiti this week. KIRF will be assisting new relief efforts in Haiti as it did after the Peruvian earthquake, Typhoon Nargis, Hurricane Katrina and the Andaman Sea Tsunami.
Thank you for your support,


Director, Co-Founder
Kirwin International Relief Foundation (KIRF)