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Meet Barry La Forgia of International Relief Teams in Mission Valley

Today we’d like to introduce you to Barry La Forgia.

Barry, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
Before starting International Relief Teams, I practiced law for 12 years in San Diego. Before that, I was an Air Force pilot and served in the Vietnam War. At that time, I never envisioned that one day I would start a humanitarian nonprofit organization.

In 1986, I volunteered to go to the Amazon jungle in Peru on a church mission trip to construct temporary lodging for indigenous tribal people. I was shocked by the primitive living conditions of these people. The following year, I traveled with another international humanitarian organization to the major garbage dump of Mexico City. There I observed families, some who had lived in the dumps for generations, sorting through the trash to find recyclables to sell for a few pesos to feed themselves. I saw little children too tired to wipe away the flies that lined the corners of their mouth, eyes, and nose. It was so heartbreaking, and I wanted to help in whatever way I could to improve their situation. The next year, 1988, I left my law and real estate practice to found Southwest Medical Teams, now called International Relief Teams (IRT). One of the first activities we did was to help refurbish a medical clinic and install showers adjacent to that dump so that these families could regularly bathe and have access to medical care.

Later that same year (1988), we responded to our first international disaster – the horrific earthquake in Armenia. Since then, we have provided critical assistance to every major world disaster including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2014 Nepal earthquake, and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.

In my opinion, the most difficult disasters are not the natural disasters, but the manmade ones – those that show our inhumanity to one another. The Yugoslav war was especially tough and one of my first experiences with such inhumane atrocities. Listening to the refugees’ stories of cruelty during our deliveries of medicines and supplies to doctors treating them was so heartbreaking. These poor people had been brutally ‘ethnically cleansed’ from their homes, their land, their churches, and their livelihoods. I am glad that we were there to provide them with assistance and hope. Close to home, IRT has actively responded to major US disasters such as the San Diego fires of 2003 and 2007, Northridge (Los Angeles) earthquake, Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi, Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey, and most recently to the three major hurricanes that hit our country and its territories this past August and September.

From our modest beginnings, we have now provided more than $372 million in humanitarian aid, and have deployed more than 6,500 medical and construction volunteers to 68 countries, including the United States. Right now, we are providing substantial aid to families affected by the three recent major hurricanes – Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Irma in Florida, and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. After so many years, I am still amazed by the outpouring of compassion our fellow Americans show in times of crisis. We have already received more than 1 million dollars for the victims of these three storms from countless individuals, corporations, and foundations. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is to see humanity at its best when faced with unimaginable tragedy and devastation.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Soon after IRT was established, the country went into a major recession and donations dropped off significantly. It was a struggle, but eventually we turned the corner financially in the mid-90’s and began to expand the scope and breadth of our work.

Disaster relief and humanitarian work is never a smooth road. There are countless obstacles to overcome in each disaster and each program we establish. In disasters, no response ever looks exactly alike and we are constantly pressed to find the most efficient ways to provide relief. During the early phase of a disaster, the most challenging issue is getting accurate information as to the actual situation in the disaster zone. We try to work in partnership with other nonprofit organizations so that we do not duplicate efforts, and maximize the impact of the donations we receive. Sometimes this means that IRT will be on the front lines with medical and/or construction personnel. Other times, it means supporting partner organizations and their personnel already in place with medicines, food, water, and other relief supplies they need. The greatest challenge in disasters comes during the recovery phase, which we define as getting families back to their livelihoods and back into their homes.

The recovery phase is the longest phase of a disaster, and yet it is covered the least by the media. Consequently, sustaining support for long-term recovery activities becomes a major challenge since the media has long moved on to other news. For more than six years, we provided skilled construction volunteer teams for families who did not have the financial ability to recover on their own after Hurricane Katrina, and for four years after Superstorm Sandy. This would not have been possible without the support of donors who understood that the recovery phase was not over just because the disaster was no longer covered by the media.

Just as no two disaster responses are the same, there is no template to follow when establishing and maintaining our development programs that address endemic poverty. With each program, whether it’s: 1) building homes for poor families in Tijuana, 2) providing free eyeglasses in Guatemala, 3) deploying surgical teams to perform ear, nose, and throat surgeries in Honduras, 4) training doctors and nurses to save babies’ lives in Vietnam, 5) or sending shipping containers full of lifesaving medicines to rural hospitals and clinics in Niger, we must navigate a unique set of logistical challenges, cultural barriers, and government regulations in order to establish long-term, effective care that improves the lives of those suffering in forgotten corners of the globe.

International Relief Teams – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Despite the significant growth in our scope of operations, San Diego remains our “home” – our only headquarters. We maintain a small but very dedicated staff, and utilize the expertise of hundreds of volunteers each year. Despite being “international”, we look for ways to help right here in San Diego. Currently, we operate a weekly nutrition backpack program for homeless and needy San Diego schoolchildren. Each week, we fill backpacks with food and deliver them to kids at four San Diego elementary schools enrolled in our program.

We remain committed to providing aid to fellow citizens in times of domestic disasters. We know that specific populations suffer most following natural disasters, usually the elderly, disabled, underinsured, and low-income families who fall through the cracks of the American safety net and cannot recover on their own. We stay with them for months and years afterward. As I mentioned, we were in Mississippi for more than six years rebuilding homes following Hurricane Katrina and four years in New Jersey following Superstorm Sandy. No doubt, we will be in Texas rebuilding for many years after the most recent disaster, Hurricane Harvey.

We are proud of our efficiency. Time and again, donors tell us that they keep giving to IRT because they know we will spend their money wisely, to reach the most people possible who suffer the most. We apply 98% of all revenues directly to programs, ensuring that our donors’ money is reaching the people they care about. Charity Navigator, America’s leading independent charity evaluator, has rated IRT with four stars, the highest possible rating, for the last 14 consecutive years. This is an honor less than 1% of U.S. charities can claim, and this highest rating is a result of our transparency, accountability, financial health, and commitment to good governance.

Where do you see your industry going over the next 5-10 years? Any big shifts, changes, trends, etc?
We feel that the global community will continue to rely on humanitarian nonprofit organizations like IRT in the coming years. With the probability of more intense natural disasters in the future, the public sector/governments will need the assistance of organizations like ours to help them respond adequately to human suffering in all its forms.

Technology is making it even easier for private supporters, foundations, and corporations to give to charities like IRT in unique and creative ways. Crowdfunding, giving by text message, spreading awareness on social media, and utilizing giving apps on smartphones are just a few of the exciting new trends in nonprofit fundraising. While we still rely on traditional methods to reach donors, such as email and regular mail, we are excited about exploring new opportunities to expand our capacity.

Social enterprise is also an important and exciting trend in the nonprofit world. For example, last month we partnered with the Cohn Restaurant Group here in San Diego. Their new restaurant in Hillcrest, Tacos Libertad, gives 100% of their profits to local charities every month. For the month of September, all of their proceeds benefitted our relief efforts in Texas for Hurricane Harvey. This is a creative approach for San Diegans to contribute to an important cause. They can enjoy a dinner and at the same time support a local charity.

Throughout our current disaster response to the three recent hurricanes, we have been amazed by the outpouring of compassion in so many unique and creative ways: 1) Elementary schools printing and selling t-shirts and conducting classroom competitions to raise funds, 2) comedy clubs, universities, and other local businesses hosting concerts and events on our behalf, 3) crowd funding campaigns on Facebook and other third-party campaigns (one of our favorites was called Pushups for Puerto Rico that encouraged people to give a dollar for every pushup they could do) and 4) many small companies donating a percentage of their sales to our relief efforts.

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Image Credit:
International Relief Teams

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