Volunteers ask for donations to help sister city in Republic of Georgia

Wednesday, August 13, 2008 | 8:49 p.m. CDT; updated 8:15 a.m. CDT, Thursday, August 14, 2008
Soldiers secure a Russian military convoy outside Gori, Georgia, on Wednesday. Russian tanks, troops and paramilitaries rolled into the strategic Georgian city of Gori on Wednesday, apparently smashing an EU-brokered truce designed to end the six-day conflict that has uprooted tens of thousands and scarred the Georgian landscape.

COLUMBIA - Family is said to be one of the closest bonds there is, and Columbia is being called upon to help her sister city of Kutaisi in the Republic of Georgia.

"This is a part of the world many people are unfamiliar with," said Greg Blair, a Columbia resident who was evacuated Tuesday from war-torn Georgia, where he was volunteering with his aunt at the Ronald James Children's Diabetic Camp.

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Blair and other volunteers from A Call to Serve, an international relief organization, met Wednesday morning at First Baptist Church to discuss and organize humanitarian relief for Georgia.

"On the Sunday night before we left, we heard aircraft flying overhead every four or five minutes and bombs being dropped," Blair said.

Pro-Russian separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia want independence from Georgia, but Tbilisi has vowed to reimpose its rule in the rebel regions, resorting to bombing and burning, BBC News reported. No one is certain which side, if either, is responsible for initiating the conflict.

Blair and another volunteer, Clifford Franklin of Kansas, were evacuated with other Americans over the weekend after Tbilisi's airport was closed because of Russian bombing.

Blair, a pre-med student at Northwestern University, has been helping his aunt educate children in Georgia about eating right and exercising to prevent diabetes at the Ronald James Children's Diabetic Camp. The camp is operated by A Call to Serve and was founded by Blair's aunt, Trish Blair, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Trish Blair, a trauma surgeon and an MU medical school graduate, stayed in Georgia and is working at the National Medical Center. Volunteers said hospitals are experiencing a medical equipment shortage, specifically with silvadene and antibiotics. Silvadene is a topical cream used to prevent bacterial or fungal infections on burned skin.

Blair reported that 200 people were wounded this past weekend in the violence.

"But while the medical needs and supplies of Georgia are urgent," said First Baptist Church Senior Pastor John Baker, "that's only one part (of the crisis)."

The conflict has displaced thousands, with around 50,000 people receiving tents and sleeping bags from the U.S. Army Command in Germany, A Call to Serve Program Manager Mila Cunningham said.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," she said. "These people are displaced and going to need temporary shelter and food and water, too."


How do we help?

"This first step here is a great one," said Greg Blair at Wednesday morning's meeting. "We need to educate people that this is a region that needs support."

"We encourage all of Columbia to be sensitive to Georgia and help in any way they can," Baker said.

One way to help is through donations of money. Money raised will go toward buying basic aid relief such as food, water and medical supplies.

First Baptist Church is serving as a collection point for organizations and religious groups participating in the fundraising. Money can also be donated online or via mail. Donations from First Baptist Church members will go directly to its sister church, Peace Cathedral Church in Kutaisi. The rest of the money donated from other organizations or religious groups will be given to A Call to Serve, which will distribute the money and supplies where they are needed most. However, one predicament that volunteers have run into is the price of shipping.

"It now costs $8,500 to ship one container to Georgia. That price is double what it was in recent years past - around $3,500," Cunningham said.

A container is a 40-foot long shipment. A Call to Serve has a grant through the U.S. State Department that allows shipping costs to be paid for, but with energy costs up, there is less money to be given out.

First Baptist Church and A Call to Serve invite all faiths, organizations and people to help raise money for Georgia.

Many Columbians are unaware of the sister-city status between Columbia and Kutaisi. The two have been paired since April 22, 1997. Grant Elementary school has also been partnered with School No. 3 in Kutaisi, and students share a pen-pal relationship.

Blair also suggests kids and schools get connected to Georgia by maintaining pen-pal relationships and building on educational and cultural exchanges.


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