Del Mar, Solana Beach residents help bring food, medicine to East Africa

Barry La Forgia, executive director of International Relief Teams
Barry La Forgia, executive director of International Relief Teams

By Joe Tash

Contributor

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.

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Katy Gilbert teaches Latvians.

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.

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Dr. Josef Zwass teaches neonatal resuscitation at the Hung Vuong Hospital in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

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.

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