From the comfort of my home, caught up in the busyness of living, it's easy to put the tragedy of others out of my mind. I can't fathom the devastation and don't want to feel the pain of losing one of my own children. But John Tesh and his family chose to personally face the aftermath of the Tsunami and to use their influence to encourage others to do the same.
After interviewing Bill Horan, president of Operation Blessing, on his radio program, Tesh asked if there was anything he could do to help. Horan invited him to join Operation Blessing on site to distribute food, medicine and clothing.
At the time Tesh wasn't sure why, but it was important to him to bring the rest of his family, including wife Connie Selleca, son Gib, 23, and 10-year old daughter Prima.
"It just felt right for all of us," he explained to Crosswalk.com in a phone interview earlier this week.
Tesh and his family's journey began with a flight to London, then a five-hour layover before flying another 10 hours to Colombo, Sri Lanka. During the layover in London, Selleca writes the following concerns in her journal, "I wonder if I am prepared to handle her (Prima's) reaction to the devastation she is about to witness. I wonder if the math homework I am working on with her will be anywhere as important as the life lesson she is about to learn."
From Colombo, the family met up with a caravan of vehicles traveling to Ampara, one of the areas most affected by the Tsunami. In Ampara, they joined Operation Blessing team members who were distributing food, providing shelter and administering antibiotics to survivors.
Upon arrival, Tesh soon discovers that as a family, he, Connie, Gib and Prima have a far greater impact together than he could have ever had alone. On their first day, in a refugee camp near the Indian Ocean, three hundred children immediately run to greet them.
"...suddenly, my son Gib was doing magic tricks, my 10-year-old daughter was teaching the girls new dances, and my wife Connie found herself consoling mothers who had lost entire families."
Everywhere they went, they witnessed the decimation of lives ... rubble on the beaches, debris in the roadway and pieces of homes strewn across the landscape. "It is impossible to imagine the wall of water rising up and taking everything away," Selleca says.
She describes watching two women walking down the beach together. It had taken the former neighbors 15 days to find the courage to come back and see what might be left of what were once their homes. "...veils of sadness thickly laying on their faces... One 'lucky'; lucky to have found the body of her 4-year-old daughter...the other...not so lucky...still searching without hope to find her 1-1/2-year-old baby." Selleca watched as the latter found and then desperately clung to a piece of clothing belonging to her child.
As a mother, Selleca could relate to the pain felt by the women she encountered. This led to her bearing a lot of emotional burden, Tesh says. "There wasn't a single therapist around to help people in dealing with their fear and heartbreak," he explains.
While in a refugee camp, Tesh and his family listened to survivors repeating similar stories over and over again. "As the kids grew more comfortable with us, the word 'Kanawu' kept coming up, which I found out (translated from Tamil) means 'nightmare.' More specifically, these children, who lost brothers and sisters and moms and dads, were talking about the tsunami. Their 'Kanawu' was the tsunami," Tesh says.
Selleca came up with the idea to have all the kids in the camp draw a picture of their 'kanawu.' After finding paper and crayons, the children drew what was on their minds. Tesh says, "The pictures were of people standing on top of houses...pictures of fishing boats smashed to pieces, and of children running." Tesh emphasizes that these are sights the children witnessed personally - "they don't have the news over there."
He says a surprising thing happened as the children fought over the blue crayons to draw the big wave. "As they went about their task of creating these haunting pictures, they laughed and they giggled, and they competed with each other to see who could come up with the masterpiece. Of course, we all stood there with tears streaming down our cheeks, watching what only my wife (the mom) knew would happen. The children of Sri Lanka were facing their deepest fears."
In spite of the fact that the people had lost so much so recently, the Tesh family continually encountered smiling faces. "The resilience of the people here taught me more and affected me more than I have ever thought possible," says Gib.
Toward the end of their time in Sri Lanka, Selleca was similarly affected. "What could possibly be enough to rebuild the devastation we saw today? Lost lives, lost dreams, lost hope. But still smiles. Survival. And then the children in the refugee camp. Hungry for fun...for laughter...hungry to forget the waves...the missing parents...missing siblings...missing friends."
Tesh explains that the people have hope in the relief workers, "that they can work with them to build new homes and somehow reclaim their lives." He also knows that a return to normal living will take years and is concerned that the media coverage "will move on to the next thing."
To help remind Americans of the constant need in Sri Lanka, Tesh and his family brought back all the pictures colored by the children in the refugee camp. In the three weeks since their return, they have compiled a book entitled, "Shades of Blue" which includes the artwork and pictures from their visit.
The book can be purchased on his website www.tesh.com and all proceeds will go directly back into Ampara to help rebuild lives.
Operation Blessing International, headquartered in Virginia Beach, Va., is a non-profit organization that provides relief and development assistance to economically disadvantaged people and victims of disaster across the globe, providing food, clothing, and medical supplies to those in need. To find out more about Operation Blessing, visit their web site at www.ob.org.