Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Vigilante for Social Justice

(Posted on NEED Magazine blog June 4)

Eric Klein was mad as hell. In December 2004, on the same day that a tsunami crashed into Southeast Asia, Klein was hit by a drunk driver. He didn't realize at the time that these two events would converge to shape his life's mission. Along with the rest of the world, Klein watched as relief organizations collected billions of dollars to help the devastated people of Sri Lanka. Six weeks later, little of the money seemed to be getting to the villagers whose lives had been swept away by the storm.

Klein determined to help out with some of the settlement money he got from the car accident. He and two of his buddies would travel to Sri Lanka to support the community however they could. When they arrived, they found untouched stacks of supplies in a warehouse across the street from needy villagers. What was intended to be a five-day trip turned into a four-month relief effort. Klein helped build houses and public bathrooms in several villages. He bought simple necessities for the hospitals, and shoes and toiletries for the villagers. He helped them organize to rebuild their communities.

Because of that experience, Klein founded CAN-DO, or Compassion into Action Network - Direct Outcome. CAN-DO has helped communities by supplying provisions in the wake of the hurricanes that have slashed the gulf coast, flooding in Iowa and Rwanda, and power cut-offs on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. On the reservation, where people earn less than $4000 a year and the average life expectancy is 44 years, Klein says he saw the worst poverty. The utility company in the region had begun to shut off the power to residents' homes during the extremely cold weather - even against the company's own cold-weather policy - because residents were overdue on their power bill, for amounts less than $100.

As he did in Sri Lanka, Klein asked the tribe how he could help. Peter Lengkeek, the Crow Creek member who brought the power cut-offs to Klein's attention, said, "What CAN-DO is doing is incredible and is the right way." Lengkeek said many people have tried to exploied the tribe for self-promotion or worse. "CAN-DO is coming here and working beside us. They have given us a voice we've never had before." Unfortunately, the power company denies they are doing anything wrong, and campaign to find a solution is ongoing. To spur economic development on the reservation, CAN-DO, Lengkeek and others are partnerning to build a thrift store, among other projects, where residents can purchase at low cost essentials like food, diapers and other dry goods. Another project is a greenhouse, which viewers can watch take shpe via live webcam June 7th through June 15th.

"People think we're this big organization, but we're not,"Klein says of CAN-DO, which is made up of a few friends and his mother and father. When they hear about a community in need, they pool resources and jump in to help. "We don't have a religious or political agenda. We don't cut checks for salaries. We have a low overhead. All the [donated] money goes into the communities we serve. We get the communty involved." Because he founded CAN-DO out of outrage over the inefficient use of relief money by some large relief organizations, he is committed to open communication with his organization's supporters. To measure accountability for people's donations, CAN-DO created the Virtual Volunteer, "the first online, interactive real-time video web site which allows millions world wide to watch LIVE and interact via chat as you personally witness your contributions make it into the hands of those in need."

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