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An airlift of help to China

Post by News Tribune Staff on June 13, 2008 at 1:46 pm with No Comments »
June 13, 2008 1:46 pm

I’ve tweaked (OK, overhauled) my story about Boeing’s Flight of Hope program. It should run this weekend.

Click below to read an early edition:

Jimmy Chen likes to think big and make things happen.

The Flight of Hope program is the result.

When an earthquake leveled large sections of China’s Sichuan province last month, the Puyallup businessman wanted to help. About three weeks later, a Shenzhen Airlines 737-800 carrying thousands of units of medical supplies left Boeing Field in south Seattle.

Another Shenzhen Airlines 737-800 packed with coveralls and facemasks took off last week, and a Shanghai Airlines 737-800 is leaving today.

This is what the right connections and goodwill can do.

Flight of Hope is based on a relatively simply idea: Airlines send a crew and other employees to perform a final inspection and fly the plane to its hub. Dozens of seats and most of the cargo areas almost always remain empty on these maiden flights.

If the jet is destined for China, relief supplies fill the extra spaces. And once it arrives, the airlines use their domestic routes to ferry the goods into Sichuan province, where aid workers distribute the help those who need it most more than a month after the quake killed 70,000 people and displaced millions.

"I woke up to phone calls early in the morning on May 12," the day the 7.9-magnitude quake hit, Chen said, "and I knew I had to help."

Chen, the vice chairman of the Washington-Sichuan Province Friendship Association, recruited friends from the business and political arenas to help. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen organized fundraisers. Rebecca Peng, a Pacific Lutheran University student and Sichuan 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.

James Kwong, a sales program manager with Boeing, hopes the program will be an ongoing effort.

Boeing employees and volunteers spend hours the day before each flight cramming boxes of supplies 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," Chen said last week after the second Shenzhen Airlines flight took off. "I asked how often they used it. They laughed, but now one of the bathrooms is full of supplies!"

Medical-supply distributors donated the products or sold them at cut-rate prices. 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 quantity 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."

But organizers have run into complications. Chinese officials turned away a shipment of wheelchairs on the first flight, calling them medical waste.

Chen, who was born in Taiwan and immigrated to the United States in 1980, said they’ve been in talks with customs agents about allowing the wheelchairs into the country.

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 just days before the second Shenzhen Airlines flight last weekend 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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