07/16/07 — UNC graduate finds career in helping world's needy

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UNC graduate finds career in helping world's needy

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 16, 2007 1:45 PM

When Jacqueline Kannan graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill several years ago with a degree in mass communications, she had no concrete life plan.

Now, the 27-year-old knows where she is headed next, thanks to a global perspective and the chance to make a difference in the lives of others that has turned into a career.

"I'm finally at a point where I now know what I want to do with the rest of my life and I had not been in that position before," she said recently.

While her field of interest is marketing, her passion is for helping people, although in ways she had never before considered.

Last year while visiting Thailand, she had an opportunity to work in an orphanage. Seeing the needs there prompted her to call upon her hometown.

Childhood friend Charlie Cooke of Goldsboro canvassed the area, speaking to civic groups and churches, getting the word out and over time collecting $16,000 for the project.

The money helped the orphanage take on more needy children, giving officials supplies and some extra volunteers to help through the end of 2007, Miss Kannan said.

Her time with the orphanage concluded in March 2006. After that, she worked at a dive shop in Railay Beach and took diving lessons briefly before taking on the role of marketing at a beach resort for several months.

Tiring of island life, she moved back to the mainland, where another chance encounter led to helping in relief efforts to the area hardest hit by the tsunami, Khaolak province.

She became affiliated with the Disaster Tracking Recovery Assistance Center (D-TRAC), coordinating aid for the tsunami victims. Unlike other non-governmental organizations, D-TRAC served as a clearinghouse matching needs with donors.

Prior to the tsunami, there were less than a dozen NGOs, she said. After the disaster struck, though, she said the number of groups offering aid climbed to about 200.

"In Thailand, they don't regulate it, so you have got everybody who wants to give books to children, boats to fishermen. ... You could have eight or nine NGOs that give them the same things -- 'stop and droppers' they call them," she said.

Coordinating such efforts is important, she said, especially in terms of effectiveness.

"For example, one went in and put all new toilets in the schools. Six months later, another NGO came in and tore down the whole school," she explained.

Three years after the tsunami hit, work is still being done. With 470 villages affected, needs assessments are ongoing, Miss Kannan said. It was part of her job to gather such information.

"We were contracted out by the Red Cross to do research," she said. "We did surveys, got information from over 200 villages. ... My job was to go in and pull the research together."

The language barrier was there, but Miss Kannan had a translator, Chanita, who traveled with her.

Being among the minority as a foreigner was never a problem, though. Because she stood out, she actually felt safer among the villagers, she said.

While the conditions were seemingly primitive -- undrinkable water and sanitation among them -- there were also trade-offs from what she was used to in America.

"I've got a house, a dog and a motorbike," she said. "We don't have washing machines because they're extremely expensive, and no oven. I do have a refrigerator and hot water, so I have moved up in the world.

"But I do have an acupuncture therapist, manicures and pedicures done by a neighbor, and laundry -- they come in and take it, wash, fold and iron every time I need my clothes washed."

She recently spent three weeks in Goldsboro visiting family and friends. On Saturday, she departed for her next assignment, working in an area of Indonesia hit hardest by the 2004 earthquake.

"We'll be responsible for the same thing -- going to provinces, NGOs that are there, conducting a project to assess what are the current needs of those affected villages and collecting scientific data," she said.

She is contracted by the Red Cross to be there for two months, after which she is scheduled to be part of a livelihood study for the French Red Cross, one of the few chapters still in Thailand.

"It's currently on hold for two months while I (go to Indonesia)," she said, explaining that early on many Red Cross chapters were represented since the bulk of those who perished in the tsunami had been tourists from other countries.

In Indonesia, as during her Thai study, she said the goal is "trying to prevent them being back where they were if another (disaster) hits. ...

"You can't just go out and give people aid. At this juncture, you're helping people in other ways. The parents are being taught to prepare for the next disaster. Schools are being built so they'll be educated for the next disaster. We're establishing things that will help them."

While she doesn't consider herself a teacher and shrugs off any credit of giving direct aid, she says it is rewarding to be involved in getting help to people who need it.

"I think that's what I want to do with my life," she said.

She anticipates one day obtaining her master's degree in a unique study program -- sustainable development, only offered at a handful of schools around the globe.

"Do I have to live abroad and do this? No," she said. "I can do this statewide, but for me to be in another culture is something that puts me at peace.

"I don't understand how these big agencies can come in (after) they have been there two weeks. Go to Thailand and live there six months, a year, and then you can really see what they need."

Making a difference on a global scale, being part of solutions in the midst of world disasters was never on Miss Kannan's radar. But now that she is more aware, her sights are set on continuing.

And on some level, it also makes sense from a hereditary level. Two of her biggest supporters are mom Beth, a nurse, and dad Jack, executive director of the Foundation at Wayne Community College, who, she said, "has worked his whole life getting aid for people in education.

"I'm just helping people in other ways."