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WSU student finds niche in tsunami relief in Sri Lanka

By Carol Spurling of Pullman

One Pullman congregation is pleased that they have not seen much of one member at church this year.

Steve Overfelt
Steve Overfelt
Steve Overfelt, a graduate student in political science at Washington State University (WSU), went to Sri Lanka in late April to do hands-on tsunami relief work.

He returned home to Moscow for several weeks in September, and then flew back to Galle, Sri Lanka, for three more months, until early January 2006.

Like many in the Inland Northwest, when he heard about the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that devastated coastal communities surrounding the Indian Ocean, Steve wondered what he could do to help.

Having spent Thanksgiving 2004 in Indonesia doing research on non-governmental organizations for his master’s degree motivated him to go to tsunami-damaged areas and pitch in.

“I started contacting international and domestic organizations that were beefing up their presence there,” he said. “Because my course work was complete, time wasn’t a constraint, but no one wanted my physical labor.  They only wanted the cash in my pocket.  After many times of being told ‘no,’ I stopped wondering ‘How can they not want me?’”

Determined to help, he and a friend, Joe Huseby, who is working on a PhD in political science at WSU, decided to create their own nonprofit organization, Tsunami Relief Boats. Their first impulse was to replace lost fishing boats for coastal fishermen.

“We found that you can’t just walk in there and give someone a boat,” Steve said. “The most important thing we’ve learned about disaster relief is not to come in with your own agenda but to work with the locals.”

A member of Community Congregational United Church of Christ in Pullman, Steve cooperated first with an established Sri Lankan non-governmental organization called Sarvodaya and then with Project Galle, a trust established by British residents of the Galle district of Sri Lanka.

In the beginning, he helped prepare food packs, health packs and tents. Then he helped people in tent camps move into temporary housing.

Steve helped teach English, build housing and fill plastic bags with a corn-soy mix for distribution and  attended meetings. Then he found his niche as a liaison officer with Project Galle.

“My job is to connect the dots, to move information from place to place. For instance, the reconnaissance teams brought back information that tents were flooding when it rained, so we needed to dig drainage ditches. I was responsible for calling the appropriate individuals to arrange it,” he said. “There are multiple issues but no follow up with solutions—so this speeds up the process and makes peoples’ lives easier.”

Progress is slow, he said, but he copes, “along with the patient Sri Lankans.”

“I have come to find that here, and perhaps in this line of work in general, you must be able to find victories in the smallest details,” he said. “One day the only thing I did was to try to  find a better way to bring a water tank into a camp. I didn’t succeed, but maybe I will soon.”

Steve believes the strong tug he felt to go and work in Sri Lanka, instead of just donating money to tsunami relief, was God’s calling.

“Part of being open to an experience like this is personality and part of it is allowing God to work through you,” he said. “When you have that openness, the right people, the right circumstances, will make themselves known.”

Steve, who grew up in First United Methodist Church in Moscow, recalls a revival meeting that spurred him to give his life to Christ in the fall of 1973 when he was 12 years old. His brother did at that time as well, and his parents had done it earlier that same year.

“I remember it well because of the difference it made in our lives,” he said. “It impressed on us the need to be involved.”

Steve’s family was already active in the international community associated with the University of Idaho and, as newly committed Christians, continued to have an “open-door policy.”

My mother is British, and she was involved in international women’s groups at the university. She would invite them to church, or we’d visit people from other countries, and we regularly had house guests from overseas,” he said.

“I remember Libyans, Egyptians, Japanese and Koreans.  Our family always took people in, from all over.  We also were always taking a pie to someone’s house, and introducing people to American customs like the 4th of July and Christmas. You can’t grow up like that without developing an appreciation for other cultures. It was how we demonstrated God’s love.”

Steve was active in Young Life in high school and in Campus Crusade during college. He went on a Young Life summer mission trip to Southeast Alaska in 1978, and worked at the Young Life camp in Canada in the summer of 1979.

He moved to Moscow when he was nine, later going away to earn his undergraduate degree in political science at Boise State University.

For two years, he taught social studies in LaCrosse before going to Seattle for nine years to work in banking, politics and the travel industry.  He married and has two children.

Steve returned to the Palouse in 1996 for studies and work.  He started attending the Pullman church last year.

By sending letters to friends and family, and by speaking during a “social action moment” at the Community Congregational Church, he raised $3,500 for Tsunami Relief Boats last winter.

In Sri Lanka, he pointed out, a dollar goes a long way.

“I pay about $8 a night at a guest house. Meals are less.  For breakfast one morning, I paid 150 rupees or about $1.50 for two fried eggs, four pieces of toast, butter, jam, a small pot of coffee and two small, thin-skinned, sweet bananas. 

“For dinner, I had rice and curry for 175 rupees—$1.80,” Steve said of his experience in Negombo, Sri Lanka, earlier this year.

Tsunami Relief Boats is still awaiting word on a grant.

In October before returning to Galle, Steve gave a slide presentation at the church on his work in Sri Lanka with Project Galle.

While the needs are still “huge” and rubble from the tsunami damage still sits awaiting cleanup, Steve said that in returning there, he felt he was going home.  He has become friends with many Sri Lankans.

“I marvel at their lack of defeatism,” he said.  “They smile more often than not. They treat a stranger as a relative. They make it easy for me to want to help them.”

For information, call 332-6411.

The Fig Tree - Copyright © December 2005