Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vigilante for Social Justice

(this was first published at NEED on June 6, 2009)

Eric Klein was mad as hell. On the December day in 2004 when the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, Klein was hit by a drunk driver. Klein didn’t realize it at the time, but the two events would change his life. Along with the rest of the world, Klein watched as billions of dollars poured into relief organization coffers for the devastated people of Sri Lanka. Six weeks later, little of the money seemed to be getting to the people on the ground, the villagers whose lives had been swept away by the storm. “The biggest relief effort in history, over $7 billion, and we had no idea how the money is being spent.” Klein says he couldn’t find Sri Lanka on the map, but was determined to help out with some of the settlement money he got from the car accident. He and two of his buddies would go there to help however they could. He asked himself, “How hard can it be?” What he found were untouched stacks of supplies in a warehouse across the street from needy villagers. What was intended to be a 5-day trip turned into a 4-month relief effort. He worked with several villages on things they needed: he helped build houses and public bathrooms; he bought simple necessities for the hospitals, shoes and toiletries for the villagers. He helped them organize to rebuild their communities.

From that experience CAN-DO, or Compassion into Action Network-Direct Outcome, was born. 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 in South Dakota, on the Crow Creek Reservation. On the reservation, Klein says he saw the worst poverty, where people earn less than $4000 a year, a place where the average life expectancy is 44 years. The utility company in the region had begun to shut off the power of residents during days of extreme cold – even against the company’s own cold-weather policy – because residents were overdue on their power bill. “I’m not some white guy going in saying, ‘here, take this, do this.’ They say what they want.” Lisa Lengkeek, whose brother worked with Klein to expose the power cut offs, said Klein came to them through an “act of the universe.” He wasn’t able to get the company to give the residents any breaks, but he is helping them to realize a dream: CAN-DO and a tribal organization called Tree of Life are partnering to build a women’s crisis center that will also house a commissary that will provide essentials like food, diapers and other dry goods. They still need $7000 to complete the project.

Klein said in the beginning he used to fly under the radar, just go out and help wherever he could without looking for publicity. After competing on Oprah’s Big Give, he realized the value of self-promotion, that to get the attention of funders, you need to get noticed. “People think we’re this big organization, but we’re not,” Klein says of CAN-DO, which is made up of a few of his 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 community involved,” says Klein. Along with spending his own money, he has received grants or supplies from Oprah Winfrey, North Face, the Airline Ambassadors and other groups. To measure accountability for people’s donations, CAN-DO has 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.”

Klein can be reached at 646-228-7049

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