"I was very impressed by the magnitude of the damage shown on the news after the tsunami hit, but I wanted to play another role besides donating money. I wanted to use skills I had to make a difference," said Loew, who recently returned from a three-month adventure.
A Fremont resident and a University of California, Berkeley, civil engineering graduate, Loew wanted to go to Sri Lanka and use his engineering expertise to help rebuild tsunami-ravaged homes and other buildings.
"My desire to help was much stronger than any reservations I had about safety," he said.
An algebra and geometry teacher at Pleasanton's Foothill High School, Loew came home toward the end of the school year in May and told his family he had planned to re-enlist in the Peace Corps with the intention of going to a tsunami-ravaged country.
"My daughter was very supportive and thought it was great," Loew said. "But my wife well, it took her a few days, and then she felt comfortable with it."
In order to leave, Loew also needed to take a month off from teaching at Foothill. When he asked Principal Kevin Johnson for the time off, Johnson told him it would be no problem.
"He (Johnson) had an
Johnson said he knew Loew would share his experiences in Sri Lanka with his students.
"I wanted my students to know what it's like to give up yourself in order to help others," Johnson said.
When the Peace Corps in cooperation with the Christian Children's Fund finally called Loew to tell him it needed volunteers in the coastal Sri Lankan town of Matara, he jumped at the chance. Loew would be able to use his civil engineering training to help Sri Lankans prioritize and organize their rebuilding efforts.
When Loew arrived in Matara, about 160 kilometers from the capital city of Colombo, most of the immediate damage seen on news clips and fresh in Americans' minds had been repaired.
"I got there six months after the tsunami hit, so things like bodies and rubble were obviously cleared away. What hadn't been cleared away were the completely devastated coastal areas where entire sites homes and buildings were demolished," Loew said. "Although progress had been made, the town of Matara still had a long way to go."
One of the most common misconceptions about tsunami-ravaged areas, according to Loew, is the needs in the area. People continue to contribute money, and Loew said from his firsthand experience that "money is not an issue anymore money is there and it's being spent. Resources will come back slowly, and international relief organizations are doing a good job of making sure that happens."
And so did Loew in his three-month mission of surveying, formatting blueprints and overseeing the rebuilding of four high schools, rural public health clinics, public libraries and hospitals.
"At first, we had to assess the damage," he said. "Next, we had to talk to community leaders and prioritize what needed to be built first."
As health clinics and hospitals took precedence, high schools and libraries, dear to Loew's heart, played an essential role in allowing citizens to return to normal daily life. Among Loew's special projects was building a children's playground from scratch.
"There was a clear and urgent need for rebuilding housing," said Loew, who pointed out that one of the major problems in the town of Matara is deciding exactly where to rebuild. "The locals are having a hard time determining if they should rebuild along the coast again, and the public policy debate on whether they should build where another tsunami can hit is really stalling the process."
Vivid in Loew's mind are the people of Matara. "The Sri Lankan people have such a natural courtesy," he said. "They were immediately hospitable."
When Loew spoke with locals, he also realized just how horrific this tragedy has been. With the Sri Lankan death toll at an estimated 30,000 people, there was hardly a person Loew came into contact with who didn't have a story.
"What was hardest was listening to the stories of parents whose children couldn't run fast enough and got swept away," he said. "People are displaced and homeless. Families are separated. It was hard to listen to the stories."
Now back in Fremont, Loew plans to educate people in the area about how they can make a difference.
"I urge people to get into contact with international organizations the ones I saw there making a difference," he said. "I urge people to contact UNICEF, CCF, World Vision and Save the Children. It is important that people find out what these people need now, in this stage."
worldvision.org and http://www.savethechildren.org.