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A flight with a bigger mission

Post by News Tribune Staff on June 7, 2008 at 3:40 pm with No Comments »
June 7, 2008 3:40 pm

Jimmy Chen entered the lounge with a white bag slung over his right shoulder and a wide smile on his face.

Everyone inside the room quieted and gravitated toward Chen. The man exerted a contagious energy; soon, most of the bleary-eyed 20 or so people sitting around tables perked up.

Chen displayed the contents of the bag: stacks of multicolored paper. One had ribbon glued to it. Another a crayon drawing of the Chinese and American flags. Chen nodded as he showed off the boxes and folders full of cards and letters – more than 800, all written by Pierce County elementary- and middle-school students destined for the earthquake-damaged areas of southwestern China.

Outside, a much larger shipment destined for Sichuan province sat on the Boeing Field tarmac.

A new 737-800 bearing the white, gold and red livery of Shenzhen Airlines was jammed with 6,000 pounds of facemasks and coveralls. Boxes filled the cargo holds and overhead bins.

When the jet finishes its delivery flight into Shenzhen, the supplies will be distributed via aid workers to those who need it the most almost a month after the quake killed more than 70,000 people and displaced millions.

The flight is the second in a new Boeing program dubbed Flight of Hope. The aviation manufacturer is partnering with Chinese airlines to pack new jets with supplies as they head from the south Seattle airport to their destinations.

Many airline companies send pilots and other employees to Seattle to go over final inspection of the plane before flying back. The program takes advantage of the ample extra space available on these flights.

Shenzhen Airlines, a carrier based in Guangdong Province, has ferried the first two planeloads of supplies. But James Kwong, a sales program manager with Boeing, said he hopes to expand the program to other airlines.

The company is storing thousands more medical-supply units at a warehouse, just waiting for transport. Employees and volunteers crammed boxes Friday into every available space on the jet – on the floor, in the cargo holds, in overhead bins.

"I was talking to the pilots and mentioned that there were two bathrooms on the flight," said Chen, a Puyallup businessman and vice-chair of the Washington-Sichuan Province Friendship Association. "I asked how often they used it. They laughed, but now one of the bathrooms is full of supplies!"

Chen awoke to phone calls on May 12, when the 7.9-magnitude quake struck, and he decided to help in any way he could. He contacted friends in the area who could help facilitate donations of money and supplies. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen organized fundraisers. Rebecca Peng, a Pacific Lutheran University student and Chengdu native, contacted her parents and others back home to find out what supplies were needed. He leaned on friends that owned businesses to donate money.

Masks and coveralls were in demand. Distributors of the medical supplies gave the organizers cut-rate deals or free donations. Word spread, and soon others contacted Chen and offered other necessities, like cases of surgical gloves.

The gloves are sitting in a warehouse, along with wheelchairs and crutches. The masks and coveralls went first because their quanitity should make their impact more effective.

"I don’t want to send 20 pairs, 30 pairs. I want bulk," Chen said. "Whatever we send out there, I want them to use it effectively. I don’t want them spend too much time distributing small things to remote areas."

The organizers’ long-term goal includes more than medical supplies.

State Sen. Jim Kastama, Chen and Owen talk about the possibility of raising enough money to help rebuild a school. Or, if the Chinese government is already rebuilding them, they could offer to help furnish it and provide supplies and books.

"We’ll give what they need," Owen said. "What we need to find out what the greatest need we can fulfill is. There’s a tremendous outpouring of desire to help from Washington State, which is not unusual when there’s a disaster."

Even if it the support isn’t financial.

Kastama contacted officials at the Puyallup, Sumner and Franklin Pierce school districts late last week and asked if students would want to send letters and cards of support to schoolchildren in the affected areas.

Hundreds began pouring in. They ranged from cards with a few words and a drawing on construction paper to full-page letters to pieces of art with ribbon and nylon rope to act as 3D hair on a crayon drawing. Most of the messages are written in English, but many include some Chinese.

Many kids expressed hope that the schools would be rebuilt soon, that the students were safe and that they felt bad for them. Some said they hoped the area’s panda bears would be safe. The letters included addresses in case the recipients wanted to start a pen-pal relationship.

"The response," Kastama said, "has been overwhelming."

And, he added with a smile, it’s just the beginning.

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