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Warehouse meets global needs

A warehouse quietly nestled in the western Maryland foothills has been meeting global needs for 60 years.

BY SUSAN KIM | NEW WINDSOR, Md. | January 13, 2004

"I like learning about the world even though lots of times it's through disasters."

—Loretta Wolf

A warehouse quietly nestled in the western Maryland foothills has been meeting global needs for 60 years.

Last week medical supplies and hygiene kits went out to help Iran's earthquake survivors. This week school supplies are being packed for children in Uganda.

Annually, more than $20 million worth of supplies, blankets and medicines are shipped to some 70 countries worldwide from the Service Ministries Distribution Center, housed on the campus of the Brethren Service Center.

The facility has customized inventory software, a climate control system, and 72,000 square feet packed with racks, bulk storage, refrigerators and even vaults for securing valuable equipment.

But it is caring people who make it go.

Like Loretta Wolf, who will take time to talk about what's in the news and what's on the minds of donors across the nation.

When she heard about of the devastating Dec. 26 earthquake in Iran, Wolf knew she'd be even busier than usual. And she doesn't have many quiet days to begin with.

In partnership with faith-based disaster response groups and other non-governmental organizations, the distribution center inventories, packs and ships goods globally in answer to needs that may or may not be disaster-related. It was established in 1944 as a collection site for material resources shipped to war-torn Europe.

Now it's just as important for people stricken by modern-day disasters. When the Iran quake hit, Wolf said, "I knew multiple agencies would be responding."

Her prediction was right. On Tuesday, Jan. 6, Interchurch Medical Assistance (IMA) and Church World Service (CWS) airlifted medical supplies enough to serve 100,000 people for three months along with 5,000 health kits to Iran.

The shipment contained 100 IMA "medicine boxes" valued at $3,500 each. The boxes house medicines for adults and children including pain relievers, vitamin/mineral supplements, gauze bandages and pads, adhesives, medicine for intestinal worm infection, Amoxicillin, topical antibiotic and antifungal agents, oral re-hydration salts, aminophylline for asthma, anti-infective/anti-protozoals for adults and children, anti-anemia drugs, antiseptic, antihistamine, and Cefzil (for treatment of bacterial infections).

Also airlifted were CWS "health kits," which include a hand towel, washcloth, comb, metal nail file or nail clipper, bar of soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and Band-Aids.

The 20-foot container left for Iran Jan. 6.

IMA spokesperson Vickie Johnson explained that thousands of Iran quake survivors are in need of basic medical supplies. "These medicines were lost when health facilities were destroyed," she said. "And now tent hospitals are treating people for basic ailments."

The quake destroyed or damaged two of the city's three hospitals, all of its 23 health centers, and 95 out of 96 smaller medical outlets, according to United Nations (UN) reports.

The 6.6-magnitude quake killed at least 30,000 people when it leveled the ancient city of Bam. Many U.S.-based responding groups, including the IMA and CWS, are working with the Iranian Red Crescent Society and the Middle East Council of Churches.

Response from faith-based groups some of which are working closely with the U.N. has continued despite a backdrop of sour political relations between Iran and the United States. The two countries cut diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic revolution saw the U.S.-backed shah overthrown and 52 Americans held hostage at the American embassy for 444 days.

In 2002, U.S. President George Bush lumped Iran into an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea.

While Bush has called on Iran to stop its alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons, Iran has called on the U.S. to lift economic sanctions imposed in 1995.

CWS Emergency Response Program Director Rick Augsburger said CWS and other response agencies were looking at long-term recovery in Iran as well as at emergency needs. "Medical and hygiene supplies are vitally needed now by the thousands of survivors still struggling and unprotected in what is essentially a demolished city," he said. "We are acting immediately."

Loretta Wolf who oversees a 13-person staff at the Service Ministries Distribution Center likes being part of that action.

Wolf has handled logistics for shipments ranging from vehicles to water purification systems to equipment for hydroelectric dam construction.

"I like the challenge," she said. "I like learning about the world even though lots of times it's through disasters."

How can churchgoers or donors help people in Iran and other countries with needs, whether they're disaster-related or not?

Cash donations are best, explained IMA spokesperson Johnson, "if we're talking strictly cash efficiency. But we understand people like to feel they have some contact."

That's why IMA, CWS and several other disaster response and relief groups offer people an opportunity to purchase and assemble kits with specific items.

When agencies offer carefully researched instructions to people assembling kits for disaster survivors, the result is materials that meet people's needs with a minimum of inappropriate donations.

"We don't have a lot to toss away," said Wolf.

If people really want to help, they can also try to remember the needs in Iran a year from now, suggested Johnson, because disasters seem to be "out of the spotlight very quickly."

And one way of getting an idea how needs worldwide are met is to make a trip to rural Maryland and visit the warehouse, suggested Wolf. "We welcome visitors and volunteers," she said.

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