Columbia's A Call to Serve donates aid for country of Georgia

Wednesday, June 5, 2013 | 9:05 p.m. CDT; updated 9:24 a.m. CDT, Thursday, June 6, 2013
For 21 years, A Call to Serve International has raised money and donated medication and medical supplies to the country of Georgia. Its latest shipment to the country left this week.

COLUMBIA — A bright yellow and orange stuffed lion was the final addition to the third and final 40-foot-long shipping container filled from roof to ceiling with boxes.

The three containers at Premier Moving and Storage on Vandiver Drive were filled with first-aid kits, medical books and journals, beds, patient exam tables, crayons and schoolbooks.  

The shipment of $3 million in donated aid was packed and loaded this week to send to the republic of Georgia, a former Soviet state north of Turkey on the Black Sea.

Former trauma surgeon Patricia "Trish" Blair, a Columbia resident, founder and president of Columbia-based nonprofit A Call to Serve International, said the shipments will benefit families in Kutaisi, one of Columbia's sister cities.

The aid will also make its way to other parts of Georgia, including Dmanisi, a rural, southern region that is home to approximately 55,000 people. 

Containers en route

The first container of supplies left Columbia on Monday, while the remaining two were shipped off Wednesday. The containers will travel to Georgia by water and arrive in six to eight weeks. Once they arrive, the items will be delivered to their destinations by A Call to Serve (ACTS) volunteers working with the country's Ministry of Health.

ACTS provides training and support for medical and education programs in Georgia and works in basic health, child survival, community development, conflict management, disaster relief and assistance, neonatal care, alliance building, non-governmental organization strengthening and nutrition. Each year, more than $10 million in medical and food aid is obtained, shipped and provided to more than 100,000 Georgians. 

Nearly $1 billion raised in aid

In 2012, ACTS shipped and distributed $11.5 million in donated items as humanitarian aid to Georgia, where in 2005, more than half of the population was living below the poverty line, according to a report by the U.N. Development Programme.

During the past 21 years, ACTS has raised more than $8.5 million in money, including grants, and more than $350 million in donated medications and medical supplies.

Volunteers from the Columbia 20/20 Lions club logged more than 1,600 hours during the past nine months sorting through and creating an inventory for the donated medical items. Sandy McCann, district governor-elect of Lions District M-3, was among those who sorted through and helped pack more than 300 palettes of supplies, that were then loaded into the shipping containers. 

McCann said there was no air conditioning or water at the old Osco building off Providence where volunteers sorted and packed, and the temperature rose over 90 degrees. But that wasn't a problem, she said.

"No one cared how hot it was because the reward of donating your time to such a great cause is worth it," she said.

Medical equipment baffles

The challenge was knowing what to call some of the donations.

"The volunteers didn't have medical degrees, so there were a lot of whatcha-ma-call-its and thing-a-ma-bobs," McCann said.

She said hospitals in Missouri and Kansas donated supplies to this round of shipments. Hospitals often donate medical supplies that have expired. 

"The supplies are plastic and won't waste away," McCann said. 

Greg Blair, Patricia Blair's nephew who graduated from MU's School of Medicine in May, is a goodwill ambassador for ACTS and was present during the loading of the final shipment. He and several other Columbia physicians donated their medical books and journals.

He said he has played only a minor role in his aunt's projects. His involvement with ACTS started in second grade at Grant Elementary School, when his class collected pennies and had to decide what to do with them. Remembering his aunt's involvement with the country of Georgia, he suggested sending the pennies there.

"We only collected around five or six dollars worth of pennies," Greg Blair said.

After the penny donation, School No. 3 in Kutaisi partnered with Grant Elementary, and the class began a pen pal group. The word for "welcome" in Georgian script hangs above Grant's entrance.

Greg Blair still recalls exchanging letters with his pen pal and learning about how different life was in Georgia.

Patricia Blair's interest in the Republic of Georgia began years ago. Also a graduate of MU's School of Medicine, she served on the faculty of Stanford University and worked as a trauma surgeon for Kaiser Permanente in California during the mid-1980s.

As part of a medical delegation responding to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and Armenian earthquake, she visited Georgia when it was part of the Soviet Union to provide medical support.

She fell in love with the country.

"Georgia is a beautiful place with beautiful people," Blair said.

Falling in love with Georgia

After that visit, Blair was named an honorary member of the Georgian Medical Association, the first physician organization of its kind in the Soviet Union. In 1991, she received a fax from one of her colleagues in Georgia, saying the Russians had pulled out of the country and taken all of the hospitals' equipment and supplies with them.

Blair organized more than 50 airlifts to the country, with support from the Air National Guard of California and other groups.

In March 1992, Blair gave up her career as a trauma surgeon to found ACTS, the first American non-governmental organization in Georgia. ACTS was the first organization to work in Georgia after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Blair said.

She lived in Georgia for four years to develop partnerships and establish ways of receiving and delivering aid.

The opportunity to form the ACTS chapter in Columbia came about by chance.

In 1994, Blair — who was in town visiting her sister and nephew, Greg — was invited to speak before the keynote address at the Boone County Medical Society's annual gala.

When the keynote speaker didn't show up, Blair found herself with more time at the podium and described to the audience her experiences in Georgia. That sparked interest among members of the medical society, and they offered to help. 

In 1995, Blair took 15 Columbia residents to visit Georgia and formed ACTS-Missouri, making Columbia the organization's permanent home.

Sister cities an ocean apart

Columbia and Kutaisi became sister cities in 1996, after an agreement was signed between former Columbia Mayor Darwin Hindman and Kutaisi Mayor Teimuraz Shashiashvili.

During the past 21 years, Blair has operated without a permanent paid staff. She has mobilized civics clubs to work together and routinely approaches pharmaceutical companies and with hospitals to donate medication and equipment.

Blair said the best way to encourage a new democracy is through a "people-to-people" connection.

Some of ACTS' accomplishments include:

  • Creating a diabetic education camp for children in Georgia that teaches them how to self-manage their chronic disease.
  • Providing iodized salt to Kutaisi after the collapse of the Soviet Union to prevent thyroid and developmental problems, when the city stopped receiving iodized salt from Siberia.
  • The Gift of Sight program, which has given 143 Georgians eyesight through donated corneas and eye drops for glaucoma patients.
  • Providing $400,000 in aid and $100,000 in antibiotics for children in response to the 2008 Russian invasion.
  • Preparing and providing hand-held breathing kits to save the lives of infants and newborns.

Greg Blair said ACTS has a variety of different projects at the moment, but that its main goal is to consolidate its projects.

ACTS is currently overlooking the establishment of a permanent women and children's hospital in Nunisi, Georgia. Greg's wife Kathryn Blair, who volunteers for ACTS, said the Soviet Union wanted women to use formula and not breast-feed their children, but ACTS has been working to teach them that they were misinformed.

"Change starts with the supplies, books and pen pal letters," Patricia Blair said. "It just takes the idea."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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