By Emily Khaykin
After hearing about hundreds of refugees fleeing in rickety boats from Vietnam in an effort to escape to Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, in 1979 Richard Walden and a friend decided to find a way to help.
“Many boats didnât make it and I couldnât bear hearing about children dying in clinics from the flu,” Walden said.
That year, Walden founded Operation USA. He urged the junior class at its Feb. 22 class meeting to get active not only in the local community but in the international community as well. The assembly was part of Community Service Awareness Week.
Originally a lawyer, Walden put his practice to the side when he founded Operation USA.
According to its brochure, Operation USA is an international relief organization that “helps communities at home and abroad overcome the effects of disasters, disease and endemic poverty by providing privately-funded relief, reconstruction and development aid.”
“After I decided what I was going to do, I started calling everyone,” Walden said.
After a few phone calls to the Red Cross, UNICEF and McDonald-Douglas, Walden managed to organize a cargo plane full of medical supplies and food to fly out to Vietnam within a week.
“Once we were in Vietnam we loaded seven tons of stuff on fishing boats and brought it to an island off the coast of Malaysia, which was filled with refugees,” Walden said.
This was Waldenâs first of many trips to aid people world-wide.
After that first visit to Vietnam, Walden attracted the attention of several health care companies and television shows, appearing on “Good Morning America.”
Since 1979, Operation USA has “delivered over $250 million in aid to 90 countries,” including Haiti and the Sichuan province in China, Walden said.
Walden emphasized that when collecting supplies to send as aid that students “canât hysterically collect anything that makes you feel good.”
He said that when collecting supplies, the most important things are sometimes the simplest things, like medical supplies.
“The most important goal in supplying aid is to get the community to start to turn the corner and begin long-term recovery,” he said. “That means re-opening health clinics and getting kids back into school.”
Walden suggested that the best way for students to get involved with the world around them is to inform themselves by watching the news.
“And keep in mind that the non-profit sector takes up approximately one-fourth of the American economy,” he said.
“There are so many ways people can help,” Walden said. “You just have to have the initiative to get up and do it.”