During the summer of 1999 I was working as a paramedic for the Berkeley, California, fire department, and living in a small town about an hour north of San Francisco. I was 42 and divorced, my kids grown, and lately I'd felt I'd come to a point where things were settling down. I'd found myself taking stock and looking at my life from an increasingly spiritual perspective.
One Sunday morning, sitting on my back porch as the sun rose on the northern California countryside, I opened the paper to an article on the war-torn former Yugoslavia. At the center of the piece was a picture of a bombed-out building somewhere in Kosovo, where the fighting was at its heaviest.
Before earning my paramedic's license, I'd worked for years as a carpenter. I knew just how much time and effort it would take to rebuild that structure. Who on earth was going to do it?
I am. I almost laughed out loud. I was just one man. What difference could I make in the face of all that devastation?
Even as I asked myself the question, I heard familiar words: Sometimes one person taking just one small action can make all the difference. That's what my mother used to say to my seven sisters and me when we were kids. Once a year, she and Dad would pile us into our VW bus and drive from our San Diego home down to Mexico to distribute clothing to needy kids as part of a church outreach. God would bless our efforts, Mom assured us. My sisters and I always had to watch out because a carelessly dropped jacket or hat might easily end up in the "Mexico Box."
I'd done a fair amount of volunteer work myself over the years reaching out to help others whenever my heart told me to. On that Sunday morning, my heart told me to go to Kosovo.
I packed a crate with tools and a backpack with clothes, cramming in a camera at the last minute, and climbed aboard a plane bound for Athens, Greece. After three more days of travel and countless squabbles with customs officials, I finally approached the border of Kosovo on foot, headed for its capital, Pristina. I was swallowed up in a river of humanity. Thousands of refugees- hungry and exhausted and carrying what few possessions were left to them- slogged numbly back home to Kosovo. What have I gotten myself into? This isn't a weekend trip to Mexico to give away clothes. These people have lost everything.
I fell into step behind a young couple. The woman was carrying a crying infant. I reached for my canteen of water and held it out to her. She took it and gave it to her child. The crying stopped, and the woman smiled gratefully. Again, I reminded myself of my mothers: Any action, however small can help. Whatever happens over here, I have to remember that.
I met a man named David Savard, a Chicago high school teacher who was doing relief work with the American Refugee Committee, or ARC, in the town of Gjilan in southeastern Kosovo. At David's suggestion, I joined ARC myself. I was assigned a jeep and an interpreter and began visiting the outlying areas to conduct damage surveys, camera in hand. Seeing a village destroyed by war in a newspaper is one thing, but it is something else altogether in person.
Centuries-old family homes had been reduced to rubble by a single mortar round. The houses left standing lacked doors, windows and roofs. Many of the returning refugees were living in cramped tents with little or nothing to eat.
In the village of Kishnapolë, my interpreter and I were invited to dinner by a farmer named Arsim. The last thing I wanted to do was to take any of Arsim's food, but I knew to refuse would be an insult. I took a seat on the floor and was given a small black bowl filled with a concoction of beans, rice and flour. As I ate, my eye feel on one of Arsim's children- a boy about seven. He was painfully thin, and wearing a grubby, baggy pair of boxer shorts that seemed to be the only item of clothing he owned. His younger brothers and sisters appeared to be even more frail than he.
Looking at these children, I had a sudden and clear insight. There's no way they're going to make it through the winter without a real roof over their heads. I've got to find a way to help these people rebuild their homes. But how?
"There's too much bureaucracy, John," the people at ARC told me. "The supplies are available, but it takes money to pay for them, and getting that money through official channels isn't easy."
Easy or not, I was determined to try my best. I started attending daily U.S. Army refugee relief meetings in Kosovo, hoping to heat about new sources of help. At one these meetings, an Army spokesperson announced that proposals were being accepted for five million dollars in the U.S. Department of Defense grants for rehabilitation projects throughout the region.