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Whidbey group makes a worldwide Impact

Afghan men in the town of Istalif sit over a meal arranged through a system set up by Impact Teams International. The food distribution system in the war-ravaged town is now handled by village elders. - Kuhmar Terisamy photo
Afghan men in the town of Istalif sit over a meal arranged through a system set up by Impact Teams International. The food distribution system in the war-ravaged town is now handled by village elders.
— image credit: Kuhmar Terisamy photo

Last year at about this time, Jamin Henderson was in Mauritania trying to help people she didn't know survive the relentless approach of the Sahara Desert.

A South Whidbey High School graduate and former owner of Jamin Michael's Coffee, she was a long way from home and well out of her original area of expertise. In a place where the water used to make a single espresso was almost a luxury, Henerson and other members of her Impact Teams International humanitarian team were trying to find a way to save as many people as they could from malnutrition, thirst and poverty.

Even with money, goods and supplies provided by ITI, meeting that goal was one of the most difficult and frustrating things she had ever done.

"It's very hard because you want to help everyone and do everything," she said.

But it was a feeling that sums up the reason she was in Africa that year. It also sums up the raison d'etre for ITI, a worldwide aid organization that puts its volunteers into some of the most trouble-torn areas of the world.

Based in Freeland after doing its work from a home base in Hawaii and a secondary office in Denver for the past 17 years, ITI put humanitarian aid workers in Iraq just after the Gulf War, in North Korea and in Afghanistan after the U.S. bombing attacks on that country last year. Though just one of many aid organizations working around the world, ITI has a reputation for being one of the first into political and military hot spots. Working with people working in these areas, ITI volunteers set up feeding stations, medical clinics, farms and industry, and help build houses.

Bill Criswell, the president of ITI -- which also operates as Impact Kids on help missions dealing primarily with childrens health -- all of this is work the organization is looking to continue from Whidbey Island. He, his wife Stephanie, and Henderson are here to operate one of ITI's two fronts, the one that makes the money for the missions.

Under the name Second Chance, ITI has opened a thrift store in Freeland which, along with donations from individuals, is expected to fund much of the work the organization does. Henderson, finished with her overseas work for now, is the store's manager and is looking to open more Impact Kids stores in other places.

The store is also a stable base from which ITI is doing work its members expect to be needed for years to come.

"We're trying to make a permanent difference," Criswell said as he sat amongst the pre-holiday merchandise at the Second Chance thrift store recently.

A former builder and land developer, Criswell started his humanitarian work with the precursor of ITI, an organization started by a University of Illinois professor. Over the past two decades, ITI has worked on a formula that involves people in embattled or disaster-struck countries in their own economic recovery.

The organization concentrates on the true hard cases of the world. When ITI sent Henderson and about a dozen other volunteers and staff members to Mauritania, it got involved in what Criswell said is the "largest refugee camp in the world." With about 70 percent of its 2.3 million people living on the edge of survival, ITI could only concentrate on helping a small number with food, medicine and microloans for starting businesses and building housing.

The ITI team helped build a four-room clinic and saw that up to 700 people a day were immunized against disease or treated for other ailments. Three days a week were spent feeding malnourished children.

At one point, half the ITI team was jailed when a team member tried to save an abandoned child. Local officials took offense at what they saw as "meddling." But that got cleared up, and now one Mauritanian village is self supporting and largely free of malnutrition.

In 1990, Criswell went to Iraq, the town in which he was working came under a shelling attack. Western ITI volunteers then had to make a quick escape from the town the next day get away from Iraqi troops searching for them.

"They executed 200 people that night," Criswell said.

There has also been work in the Honduras after a major hurricane, Bosnia after the genocidal wars of the 1990s and North Korea during its continuing famine.

Of ITI's work in Bosnia, Jose Euceda, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees section in that country, was more than complimentary. In a 1999 letter to Criswell, he credited ITI with being the first humanitarian organization in the city of Drvar, Bosnia, and credited ITI volunteers for returning 7,000 refugees to the city over two years.

Now involved in rebuilding Istalif, an Afghani town near Kabul, ITI is starting the process of rebuilding some of the 7,000 homes destroyed by Russian and Taliban forces and bringing back the area's obliterated vinyards. Criswell said 2,000 new homes are now under construction under a village development plan. In the coming months, he plans to return to Istalif with a California grape vine expert to find out if the 2 million grape vines destroyed over the past 20 years can be brought back to life or replaced.

This winter, with an expected $50,000 in proceeds from the thrift store and other fundraising, ITI is planning to send a container full of tools to Istalif, tools town residents will need to continue the work ITI volunteers started.

There is little that is glamorous about the humanitarian aid business; in fact, Criswell said, little of it is even considered newsworthy. But in his mind, it is necessary, even if what he and others in his organization do only make life better for a tiny portion of the world's people.

"We can't save the world," he said.

It doesn't mean they won't try.

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