Wednesday, December 12, 2012

KIRF Field Report: Hurricane Sandy Relief in New York City

On Friday, December 7th, Mark Kirwin, founder of KIRF and member of the Rotary Club of Ventura, with Steve Doll, who is also a member of the Rotary Club of Ventura, traveled to New York city to help the on-going Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.  After landing at JFK, they met up with KIRF board member Patrick Rea, a resident of New York. Patrick had been doing on-the-ground assessments of post-Hurricane Sandy relief needs was ready to help.

That Friday night we visited several shelters in Brooklyn and found out that they were no longer providing aid to Hurricane Sandy victims. The people at the shelters suggested that we travel to the hardest hit areas: Staten Island, the Rockaways, and Coney Island–areas where there was still a lot of need. According to the New York Times, most of the flooding and deaths from Hurricane Sandy occurred in these areas. Of the people who died from Hurricane Sandy in New York City, 34 of the 43 deaths were elderly residents on Staten Island.

On Saturday morning we met with local volunteer relief workers at the area’s Occupy Sandy headquarters. Occupy Sandy is a New York City-based disaster relief group of local citizens, humanitarians and tech-savvy volunteers that has been quick to to deliver relief supplies directly to Hurricane Sandy victims. When we arrived we saw a logistically well-organized relief effort being run by an Occupy Sandy volunteer group headed by a relief worker named Kelly. From what we understood, the Occupy Sandy group had volunteers working in different neighborhoods of the region’s storm ravaged areas.  These volunteers worked with local resident councils who advised them on their most pressing needs.  The councils then distributed the provided aid to their residents who made the requests. Many thanks goes to the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew for their incredible kindness in offering the Occupy Sandy group a safe and secure place from which to direct their volunteer disaster relief.

We purchased relief supplies that were requested by the resident councils of two areas devastated by extensive flooding: the low-income housing complex of Ocean Towers on Coney Island and the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn. After purchasing the relief supplies for the Ocean Towers complex, we delivered them directly to their resident council. The supplies they requested included baby food, diapers, and wipes, toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes and feminine sanitary products, and cleaning supplies: mops, construction gloves, sponges, garbage cans, construction garbage bags, bleach (for cleaning the mold from the water surge); and school supplies such as pencils, crayons and lined paper. And, we purchased non-perishable food items that were requested such as canned soups, tuna fish, and stews. We then purchased and delivered similar items requested by the resident council of the flood damaged Red Hook neighborhood with the assistance of Occupy Sandy relief workers.

There are piles of ruined furniture and garbage from cleaning out water-damaged homes lining the streets in the coastal neighborhoods we visited.

It still amazes me as to how much aid is still needed even five weeks after a major disaster, especially for low income families with children and the elderly, in a major American city like New York.

A special thanks goes to the Rotary Club of Ventura who partnered with KIRF to provide the funds to purchase the aid for this disaster relief effort.  We also thank the manager of the Brooklyn Path Mark grocery store who gave us a discount when we purchased relief supplies.  Our relief effort would not of been possible without the tireless efforts of the people of Occupy Sandy, including Kelly, Lev and the rest of the volunteers. These people made the efficient distribution of aid possible from the private sector. Five weeks after the disaster, they continue to get aid to families still suffering from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. And, last but not least, I thank Steve and Patrick for volunteering their time and joining me in this effort.


Mark Kirwin
Founder of KIRF (

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Empowering Young Women Through Softball in Playa Gigante, Nicaragua

Playa Gigante, Nicaragua Mark Kirwin
Mark Kirwin at Playa Gigante
Surf nomads discovered the perfect surf breaks of the west coast of Nicaragua about 30 years ago. From Playa Colorado to Playa Popoyo, surfers from all over the world have made the Pacific coast of Nicaragua a popular surf destination in the past decade. Some people are concerned that the traditional small farms and fishing villages on these still pristine beaches and hillsides will be overwhelmed by the influx of tourists and unskilled outsiders looking for work–or easy targets for crime.  What the locals do not want is to lose their beautiful sandy beaches to gated tourist lodges and luxury homes surrounded by crime, garbage and poverty.

In the coastal community of Playa Gigante local residents and two non-profits are working to make sure that it doesn't happen there. There are several community-wide development projects in the works that aim to help the local people adapt to the new tourist economy in a way that is socially, environmentally and economically sustainable. The feeling of the town reminds me of the Hawaiian concept of ‘ohana, in that the small town is like an extended family and that no one should be left behind. The town, at about 450 residents, is small enough that everyone knows everyone else but is big enough to require its own school and a healthy economy to support it's local families.

Assessment work in Playa Gigante
for Ventura Rotary Club
Mark Kirwin, founder of KIRF, came to Playa Gigante as a volunteer field worker for the Ventura Rotary Club to help them with their project assessments of the aid requests to help the local families of Playa Gigante.  To read more about the Ventura Rotary Club project, please see the Rotary website post "Three Ventura Rotarians Conclude a Successful Trip to Nicaragua." After meeting with local community leaders  and visiting project sites while working for the Ventura Rotary Club in August 2012, Mark realized that his own foundation KIRF could make a difference, too. Mark met with the inspiring founders of two local non-profits in town, the Sweet Water Fund and Project WOO, that are actively working with the town’s leaders to improve education, health services, and create economic opportunities in the surf tourism economy for local families. The result of those meetings was KIRF's sponsorship of the Estrellas de Gigante, Playa Gigante's women’s softball team, with its donation of new sports equipment.  Baseball is the national sport of Nicaragua and many towns have a local team.  Playa Gigante's local women's team has not only been a source of pride for the women, it has strengthened their social ties within the community. The team was also founded as a means of improving local the women's health and fitness. So far, it’s been a great success!

Outfitting the Playa Gigante Women's Softball team:
Ben and Kassidy (Sweet Water Fund), Ed McCombs
(Ventura Rotary) and Mark Kirwin (KIRF)
Sports equipment purchased by KIRF included new bats, balls, bases and new softball mits for each player including a left-handed mit for a pretty young lefty named Martita. The softball field still needs a lot of work including a "real" dugout and stands for spectators but we hope others will come forward to help out these amazing young ladies and their team soon.  To see photos of Playa Gigante's women's softball team with their new sports gear, please checkout the Sweet Water Fund's post " outfits the softball girls".

Mark Kirwin with Bo (Project WOO) and
Ed (Ventura Rotary)
We are looking forward to returning to Playa Gigante in December and visiting the inspiring folks at Sweet Water Fund and Project Woo.  While there we will assess other needs (such as a well and a health center) and see what more we can do for a community that has been so generous with its natural gifts of smiles, delicious meals, and, of course, those perfect waves.

Monday, July 30, 2012

KIRF Field Report: Oranges de Bainet, Haiti

Mark Kirwin at the unfinished primary school in Oranges de Bainet, Haiti
Right after the 2010 earthquake, KIRF helped supply food staples to a remote village in Haiti called Oranges de Bainet. Since that relief trip, I have been in contact with people from Oranges. They have told me that a non-profit had built them a new school, but it was not finished. And, although they had a partially competed school, there were no school supplies to use to teach the students.  Further, as a mediator and conflict resolution professional, I have often wondered if Haiti needed any conflict resolution assistance or training because of all the tragedy and possible civil unrest from the tragic earthquake. It is for those reasons we returned to Haiti earlier this month.

With KIRF volunteers Patrick Rae (a member of the KIRF board), and Dr. Thomas Fiutak (whom I have worked with for a number of years at the United Nations Conferences on Climate Change regarding conflict resolution and mediation) we returned to Port-Au-Prince on July 16, 2012.

The first thing I noticed that was different from our trip in 2010 was the absence most of rubble on the streets. And, that many of the tent camps we saw during our last trip were gone.  The tent camps near the airport are still there, but many of the vacant lots and parks around Port-Au-Prince no longer have earthquake-homeless living in them. I also noticed that just outside of town, to the North, where many people fled and had constructed simple temporary living shelters on the dry hills after the earthquake, the government was building a reservoir to supply that new community with water.

I talked to many people while in Haiti about the current state of affairs.  As with any set of interviews on a subject, there were a variety of opinions on what needs to change in order to get the economy going stronger. But unanimously, each Haitians I spoke with wanted me to let the world know that Haiti is recovering, that the people of Haiti do have hope, that there is a good labor force in Haiti that wants to work, and Haiti is ripe for investment to start new businesses with it's new government and a sense of stability.

Inside a classroom at the new school in Oranges de Bainet, Haiti.
Once again, we experienced a lot of generosity and a willingness on behalf of the Haitians to assist us in helping their fellow citizens.  After arriving in the late afternoon, on Monday the 16th, we left the next morning at 4:30 a.m. for the long drive to Oranges, via the road to Jacmel. Several local people volunteered their time to assist us with this project–of which we are very grateful.  As one drives over the mountains to reach Jacmel, we took a left off of the paved road for a dirt road that went to Bainet.  A two wheel drive vehicle would be hard pressed to travel this very rough  and rocky dirt road.  After several hours of winding through the mountains, with beautiful vistas, and street markets full of people selling all manner of  produce and other foods, we finally arrived in Bainet.  It took about 2 minutes to pass through Bainet when our dirt "road" dropped down into the bed of the Oranges River.   That is where our four wheel drive was absolutely essential.

We drove up along the Oranges River for hours, crossing the river  bed at least 15 times, with water rushing up past the bottom of the vehicle doors.  Then, finally, we were there: Oranges de Bainet. The town was a small community of houses, with a church and partially constructed school.  We were met at the school by Father Maxis who has worked in this community for the last three years. The priest explained to me why education was so important for the children of the village.  Not only does it educate the children for better jobs and a better future, but it gives them a sense of pride and will benefit the community. Hopefully, when children get an education and go on to college, they will return to the community to work and share ideas on how to make it a better place for all to live. Education also helps reduce violence in the community the priest said. 

Father Maxis and lumber for the new school.
After we were given coconuts from which we drank fresh coconut juice, we toured the recently constructed school.  It has a roof and walls for six classrooms and a room for teachers,   but it did not have any finishes including windows. It's rooms are empty: no seats, desks, or black boards. And, it did not have any supplies to use to teach the anticipated 150 students who will attend.   And, the latrines had not yet been constructed before the money ran out.  Father Maxis had it wired with electrical outlets should electricity every reach the area (or someone donates solar).  He also had the walls reinforced so that is earthquake safe, and so that a community center could one day be built on top of the school.  Simply put, Father Maxis is a forward thinking, very bright individual who believes in the power of education to help raise the community out of poverty. It was indeed an honor to meet and to work with him.

So after this assessment, we returned on the long and windy road to Port-au-Prince. The next day, it was decided that the best way to help Oranges school was to provide Father Maxis and the community with the needed school books and teaching materials for grades K-6. We worked with many kind Haitian businesses who sold us the educational materials at a discount since supplies were for the new primary school in Oranges de Bainet.  We also purchased raw wood and building supplies for the community to use to build the desks, benches and chalk boards to fill up the now empty and unfinished classrooms.

Haiti's future: A beautiful young girl in Oranges de Bainet.
Father Maxis is still looking for donations so he can hire some full-time teachers for the school.  Right now, he teaches the classes himself with help from some people in the community. However,  he is looking for trained teachers to run the school.  We estimated that with room, board and salary, $2,000 would be sufficient to pay for one teacher for one year.  However, now that the school is finished enough to teach classes, and they have the books, Father Maxis is hopeful that he will be able to receive the funds to hire the teachers.

Dr. Fiutak and I also met with community leaders in Port-Au-Prince who discussed issues of gender equality  and climate change as well as the need for mediation training to assist them with conflict resolution in their communities, especially in some of the poorer parts of the city and outlying communities.  We are  looking forward to working with these folks in the future regarding these issues.

Thank you for all who get out there and make it happen- in any way you can!


Mark Kirwin
Founder of KIRF (

Saturday, July 21, 2012

KIRF's Sewing Centre in Shekhwara Village in Bihar, India

Most people understand that the best way to help people who are in economic need is to help them in a way that allows them to help themselves become financially self-sufficient. Doing things this way not only assures that the economic goals are the same for both the giver and the recipient of aid, there is also a means and intention by the giver to truly help others become less dependent on them and, ultimately, have a better future. It is for this reason that KIRF strives to do long-term and sustainable relief through education for families in need. KIRF's mission is not only to help people help themselves in a disaster with disaster relief, it is also to help people have a better future through education. 

The KIRF Sewing Centre in the rural village of Shekhwara in Bihar, India is an example of an annual in-kind grant and educational project that was founded by KIRF. The Sewing Center is located at the Shekhwara Village School. The school is about 10 km from World Heritage site and Buddhist pilgrimage temple called the Mahabodhi in the ancient town of Bodhgaya. The KIRF Sewing Centre school is primarily a vocational training center for young mothers who need to earn an income to feed, clothe and care for their children. In rural Bihar, many women are left alone with their children at their in-laws for months at a time while their husbands are working for months at a time as migrant laborers elsewhere. When these women are able to earn an income or offer a valuable local service such as tailoring, they are not only helping themselves and their children, they are helping their entire extended families.  The KIRF Sewing Centre serves between 20 to 25 students, many of whom have no formal academic education. In addition to sewing and embroidery, they are taught basic literacy skills  and given social support.

We started the Sewing Centre in 2009 with a donation of three non-electric sewing machines, sewing supplies, textiles and a small stipend for a part-time sewing instructor. Today, dozens of young women have graduated from the KIRF's sewing program with a moneymaking skill and a high status certificate of ability that is proof of their ability. The program is a popular one in the rural village where it is located and there is a waiting list to attend.

The Sewing Center is located at the Shekhwara Village School, a free school established by Diane Kirwin and several local Indian humanitarians in 2009.  This school is the only quality academic education available to its 100 to 110 students in the area. Some students walk as far as 3 ½ kilometers (about 2 miles) to school each day. There are currently five classes at the school and snacks are provided five days a week for the students. There is also a Saturday yoga class. The Shekhwara Village School also hosts the Kirwin International Health Clinic that is open on Saturday mornings at the school. The clinic provides free health and medical services to families of the school’s students. Each week, about 30-40 patients, mostly women and their children, get treatment.

Snack time at Kirwin James International School. See
To support KIRF's Sewing Centre at the Shekhwara Village School or the Kirwin International Health Clinic, please contact us or make a donation at Please indicate that the donation is specifically for the "Shekhwara India Project". Thank you. :)

Below are recent photos of the Health Clinic at the Shekhwara Village School in Bihar, India.

Refugee, migrant and IDP children in Burma get school supplies from KIRF

KIRF has been getting needed school supplies and some food aid to IDP (“internally displaced people”) children in conflict areas in the Eastern Karen State of Burma and to child refugees in northern Thailand since 2008. We have been able to do this through an aid network coordinated by the Community Schools Program. This non-profit organization based in northern Thailand has provided access to education, medical care and basic necessities to refugee and migrant families from Burma as well as IDP families in Burma since 2001.

The local community-run schools we are supporting are the only source of formal education to their young students. Resisting regime pressure to shut down, they rely on international support through the Community Schools Program to prevail in the conflict areas of eastern Burma. Every year since 2008 we have been helping these kids have a better future through education with the help of the Community Schools Program. The first two photos (top left and bottom right) of this article were taken in a few months ago at an IDP school inside of Burma. As you can see, it is easy to fall in love with these kids!. We try to support them and their teachers as much as we can.

In 2006 the Community Schools program was recognized by the World’s Children Prize Foundation of Sweden and received funding for 25 of their community supported schools. As part of this recognition, a formal needs assessment was done that identified the action areas of child abuse in the Eastern Karen State of Burma. According to the "Activity Report of the WCPRC in Burma - May 2011" report published by the Community Schools' Program, here are those areas of concern:

  • Parents cannot afford the children to go to the schools due to poverty.
  • In Burma there is still a civilian war with killing and displacement; many children are threatened and the Burmese regime has burned down houses, community schools and have killed innocent families
  • Children have been forced to become child soldiers
  • Child trafficking that includes forcing the children to work as housemaids, market workers and in brothels is occurring
  • Due to poverty there is the lack of the opportunity for studying when children can attend school
  • There is often no local school in the home village of children and parents cannot afford the transportation to schools in other villages
  • In some schools, children are beaten for infractions such as not doing their homework

In response to the needs assessment and report, formal workshops to provide basic child rights training for teachers and a global vote for the World's Children Prize was organized in schools in Burma and in Thailand migrant schools and schools inside of refugee camps by several organization. Unfortunately, some IDP schools in Burma could not safely participate for security reasons due to conflict. For many children (excepting the ones in the conflict and refugee camp schools), the global vote was the first time they have ever left their village and became aware of a global community that supported their rights.

We have wanted to publish more photos about KIRF's support of Community Schools a long time ago but didn't due to our concern for the safety of thir many volunteer aid workers and the teachers inside and outside of Burma. The photos above are being published with permission of the Community Schools Program. More news and photos from this non-profit will be available online once their new website goes live.

In 2008, KIRF co-founder Mark Kirwin purchased and helped deliver school supplies, food aid and basic living supplies to migrant and refugee children from the Eastern Karen State of Burma. The photos below were taken in 2008 and were chosen in order to not reveal the identities of these migrants from Burma.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

IHC fiscal miss-management has hurt hundreds of non-profits, including KIRF India

[KIRF India's students and staff at Kirwin James International
School, Shekhwara August 2011]
We are very saddened to hear of the sudden closure of IHC (International Humanity Center) and the tragic consequences for hundreds of non-profits; including KIRF India. 
Please note that our non-profit KIRF is a separate and distinct organization from IHC and KIRF India. KIRF is not affiliated with IHC and has its own registered charitable institution status – 501(c)(3) – with the Federal government and the state of California. 
KIRF is also a completely separate organization from KIRF India with it's own board of directors and financial management. As such, our non-profit is not affected by the IHC closure. KIRF India, a registered Indian Charitable Trust with its own local Indian management and staff, entrusted IHC as a fiscal sponsor to manage donations and accounting in the United States. KIRF India provides free education and health services for lowest caste under-privileged children and women in rural villages near the ancient city of Bodhgaya, a World Heritage site, in the state of Bihar, India.
We are proud of our independent support of KIRF India's programs in Bihar including the popular Sewing Center program at KIRF India's Kirwin James International School located in the rural village of Shekhwara. The free school is the only educational option for lowest caste under-privileged children in the area. KIRF is also proud of its support of water well construction and repairs, which has provided safe drinking water for students and families at KIRF India-supported educational centers in several villages as well as our in-kind donations of high quality text books and other educational materials for the children of KIRF India supported schools. 
The sudden closure of the IHC has been financially devastating for KIRF India. It has also been a betrayal of trust for KIRF India's supporters and donors as well. KIRF India is not alone in this situation as hundreds of other non-profits have entrusted the IHC as their fiscal sponsor to handle donations and book-keeping for a fee. We are looking forward to a quick and just resolution of this matter. In KIRF India's case, it will be the young students of the Kirwin James International School and the families that rely on KIRF India's free health services that will be the most hurt by the financial miss-management by the IHC.