Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2005


Mach Arom ´89: Rebuilding hope for Thai tsunami victims

Kathryn Bard ´68: Somewhere in Egypt

Who cares about Haiti?

Venturing into Iran: Beyond the warning

Gloria Hollister Anable ’24: Into the deep

Gaida Ozols Fuller ´74: Six months in Uganda

Sarah Trapido ´08: Going 13,000 miles on veggie oil

Yoko Shimada ´99: Fighting the war on AIDS in East Africa

The extra mile: Journeys that make a difference

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Mach Arom ´89: Rebuilding hope for Thai tsunami victims

Mach Arom ´89: Rebuilding hope for Thai tsunami victims
Volunteers work to rebuild Phuket, a tropical island 500 miles south of Bangkok, as part of a project organized by Mach Arom ´89.

by Tracy Thomson Teare ’87

Like many Americans, Mach Arom ’89, caught the news of the December ’04 Asian tsunami on television and watched the death tolls rise in horror.

By some twist of fate, this Thai American who grew up with a foot in each country and typically spends the holidays with family in Thailand, was at home in New York when disaster struck 11 Pacific countries and took the lives of more than 160,000 people. “I called my parents to make sure they were in Bangkok, watched television, and tried to get information from the web. The videos were horrifying. I was simply stunned,” he recalls.

As the shock began to wear off, Arom saw past the immediate outpouring of international aid and began to form a plan. “It was similar to how I felt about being in New York for 9/11,” says Arom. “I had to do something. Both tragedies were in my backyard, in different geographic ways. The scale was huge, [and I knew] something this big would fall off the radar of the mainstream media relatively quickly because it happened so far around the world.”

While many relief organizations were collecting donations to send overseas, Arom and his brother Dan wanted to get dollars into the right hands and deliver manpower for smaller-scale projects with immediate impact for local Thai. They formed the Phuket Project, a nonprofit volunteer organization to support local communities on Phuket — a tropical island roughly the size of Singapore, some 500 miles south of Bangkok — and in other southern provinces. Arom had traveled to Phuket to visit extended family (thankfully, his great aunt, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews on the island were unharmed in the disaster), and vacation countless times since age 6. So with an insider’s knowledge of the culture and geography, and help from five dedicated volunteers, he had the Project web site up and running by early January, planned an official kickoff meeting and landed the first team in Thailand in February.

Project Phuket has raised more than $60,000 dollars in grass-roots efforts such as fundraising concerts and art shows, selling stationery, and e-mailing friends. More than 550 volunteers have signed on, and four work teams totaling 134 have worked in Thailand, with two more trips scheduled for September and October. Each volunteer bears the cost of getting around the globe and back and donates at least two weeks of their time to building and rebuilding. Projects ranged from relatively simple — the first was to construct a bathroom with four plywood walls — to rebuilding homes and schools, as well as building boats, playgrounds, and holding one-day art therapy workshops for Thai children in conjunction with The ArtReach Foundation. One of the most dramatic: a partnership with the Bangkok Phuket Hospital to rebuild the Kamala Pre-School. This community center and school, two years in the making, was due to open for 200 children the day the tsunami destroyed it.

While Arom is quick to deflect praise for his efforts to his dedicated tribe of volunteers, it’s clear that he’s given a tremendous amount of energy to the cause. Spearheading the Phuket Project could easily be a full-time job in itself, yet Arom manages this alongside a career in the fast-paced New York advertising world, as executive creative director at Foote, Cone and Belding. “There were a lot of late hours,” he says, recalling days when he worked another three to four hours after his work day ended at 9 pm. “The good thing was that the late night synched up well with people in Thailand who could help coordinate hotels, flights, tools, and supplies.”

The quick connections of e-mail and the internet, backed by extraordinary energy, made for a quick ramp up. Arom’s local connections and knowledge of Thai culture helped them snake through red tape and corruption to get volunteers to Phuket and engage in meaningful projects. Key volunteers include Mike Wardlaw of the College’s physical plant team, whose construction know-how and willingness to scale daunting heights has proven critical, and Sam Bottum ’89, who headed up the second group in Thailand. Indeed, volunteers sprang up from all corners of Arom’s life, and beyond.

Giving back is a value that Arom traces to lessons learned at Connecticut College, from the late dean of freshman Joan King, who taught him that everyone you meet has something to teach and share, to former president Claire Gaudiani ’66, who instilled in him the value of community involvement. “These sensibilities were fine-tuned at Connecticut College, and everything I do has dots that connect the premise that there is still so much for me to learn from so many other people,” says Arom, who plans to keep sending teams overseas as long as the volunteers and cash allow.

The standout lesson from this venture? The giving nature of the human spirit. “Friends from college, work, high school, friends of friends, and people I had never met took such leaps of faith and traveled around the world to work on this relief project. I remain very touched by the trust they gave ... I’m honored by the fact that they wanted to help the Thai people, and gave up vacations, and put up with heat, dirt, and 24-hour flights to do this for the survivors. How simply incredible.”

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