By Joe Tash
The map compiled by the U.S. Agency for International Development tells the story at a glance: large swaths of Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia are colored in pink and red, colors which represent extreme food shortages and famine.
San Diego-based International Relief Teams is working with relief agencies from around the world to rush food and medicine to the afflicted region of East Africa with the help of donors across the country, including many from North County.
“I hope people will support the Horn of Africa famine relief. This is a situation that’s not going to go away any time soon and so many lives are at stake,” said Barry La Forgia, executive director and founder of the IRT.
“We’re trying to keep people alive,” he said.
Since the crisis began, the IRT has shipped more than $3 million worth of drugs, such as antibiotics and medications to fight diarrhea and malaria, along with 36,000 high-nutrition “Plumpy’nut” bars to feed starving people.
La Forgia founded the IRT in 1988 and the nonprofit organization has four key missions: disaster relief in the United States and abroad; medical training in developing countries; medical and surgical outreach missions; and health promotion, which can include everything from programs to provide clean water to efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.
In some cases, IRT sends teams of volunteers out to help with disaster relief, provide medical care to the poor or train doctors and nurses in the latest medical techniques. In others, such as the Horn of Africa relief effort, IRT works with “organizations that already have boots on the ground,” said Kay Gilbert, a Solana Beach resident and chairwoman of IRT’s board of directors.
Gilbert works as a midwife at Kaiser Hospital in San Diego, and also teaches at San Diego State University. She became involved with IRT in the late 1990s when she joined a team that taught modern obstetrical methods in Latvia, a former Soviet satellite. Gilbert traveled to Latvia twice a year for five years, and was gratified to see infant mortality rates decline during that period.
“It was the highlight of my professional career,” she said of her missions to Latvia.
After completing the Latvia project, Gilbert said, she continued her involvement with IRT and joined the board two years ago.
“I’m very proud to be involved with the organization,” she said.
Her sentiments were echoed by Josef Zwass, a pediatrician who lives in Del Mar. Zwass has participated in both teaching and clinical trips to countries such as Latvia and Vietnam. IRT’s goal is to provide instruction and training materials to professionals in developing nations, who can in turn train other providers.
Zwass said he volunteers with IRT “both to give back to the community and to the world. I get personal satisfaction doing volunteer work, especially teaching. It leaves a lasting legacy behind.”
Rancho Santa Fe businessman Tony Carr said he first learned of IRT’s work after the tsunamis that devastated Southeast Asia in December 2004. Carr said he wanted to donate money to help the tsunami victims, but didn’t want a large portion of his donation to go towards a charitable group’s overhead costs.
According to La Forgia, IRT receives between $1 million and $2 million in donations each year, and more than 98 percent of the money goes directly into programs.
Carr said he became a regular donor to IRT, and also volunteered with a team that rebuilt homes in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s real, it’s credible, he is what he appears to be, he’s a legitimate guy,” said Carr of IRT and La Forgia. ““And I’ve been there on the ground, I’ve seen it, it’s not just a flyer that I’m getting in the mail.”
This year, Carr and his wife, through their company, are co-sponsors of IRT’s annual fundraising gala, which will be held Oct. 22 at the San Diego Marriott Hotel.
La Forgia, 65, was an Air Force pilot who flew 102 missions during the Vietnam War. He returned to San Diego after his military service and attended to law school, and practiced business law for 12 years before founding IRT.
He said the group will continue raising funds for the Horn of Africa crisis, with the goal of sending another 100,000 of the Plumpy’nut bars to famine victims. The bars, made of peanuts, powdered milk, sugar and a vitamin mixture, can be eaten by children and adults and require no preparation, La Forgia said.
Through contacts in the nonprofit community both in the United States and overseas, La Forgia said, the group can leverage its cash to buy large quantities of food and medicine for famine victims. He said a $34,000 investment resulted in a shipment of $3.4 million worth of drugs to Africa, most of which were donated by pharmaceutical companies.
IRT is working with groups stationed at refugee camps along the Somali border, because conflict within the country makes it too dangerous for relief workers, La Forgia said. The famine was triggered by a drought that has struck the area over the past several years, killing crops and livestock.
“These people don’t have any savings to fall back on. They pretty much are living at the mercy of the elements,” La Forgia said.
To find out more information about IRT or to support its efforts in Africa and elsewhere, visit
- For more information about the crisis in the Horn of Africa, visit