Goleta nonprofit plans second flight of aid to India
It was 2 a.m. A FedEx crew was doing the ultimate balancing act in the middle of the night with a Boeing 777 at Newark Liberty International Airport.
Thomas Tighe, president and CEO of Goleta-based Direct Relief, was there last Friday, watching workers figure out the logistics of putting 100 tons of KN95 masks and oxygen concentrators into the aircraft bound for Mumbai, India, where COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed.
The supplies were transported by a caravan of trucks with two-driver teams, moving non-stop in three days from Goleta to Newark. And Mr. Tighe wanted to be there to see the final stage before the plane took off at 3 a.m. in the dark of night.
It arrived during the light of day to bring supplies to Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital, representing the hope Direct Relief brought in the darkest of times.
“It was such an exceptional event,” Mr. Tighe told the News-Press later about being at the Newark airport. “We wanted to document it (with photos) and thank FedEx.”
FedEx donated the use of its Boeing 777, the right plane with the right size for Direct Relief’s herculean job of helping hospitals, clinics and communities around the world during the biggest pandemic in a hundred years.
What’s more, Direct Relief and FedEx are doing this all again. The News-Press learned that another Boeing 777 will take off in the early hours this Friday to transport more KN95 masks and oxygen concentrators from Newark to Mumbai and Tata Memorial Hospital.
“We’re going to do another one this weekend with 100 tons and the triple 7 aircraft,” Mr. Tighe told the News-Press during an exclusive interview. “We’re scrambling to make sure we’re getting everything wrapped and labeled for this weekend’s second major airlift to India.”
And there’s that balancing act. The 100 tons of supplies consists of 3,400 oxygen concentrators, which go into the airplane first as FedEx workers work on reaching the Boeing 777’s capacity for weight, Mr. Tighe explained. On top of the concentrators are a whopping 265,000 KN95 masks, which FedEx uses to reach the plane’s capacity for volume.
Back in Goleta, Direct Relief has worked on its own acrobatics as it has worked throughout the pandemic to provide masks, gloves and other supplies to hospitals, clinics and communities around the planet. In fact, during the last week, Direct Relief delivered 351 shipments of requested medical aid to 36 U.S. states and territories and 24 countries worldwide.
This level of activity has remained a constant throughout the pandemic for Direct Relief, where crews are working virtually every day.
When asked if 2020 and 2021 have been the busiest period in Direct Relief’s 77-year history, Mr. Tighe chuckled and said, “I think that’s a fair bet.”
“We didn’t expect we would become the largest distributor in the world of PPE (personal protective equipment),” Mr. Tighe said. “That happened because we had a good system and a network that requested the equipment.”
He also noted Direct Relief was the primary channel for donations of equipment from 3M and large financial contributions from Amazon, Cisco and other organizations.
Fortunately, Mr. Tighe said, monetary donations grew “probably 50%” without Direct Relief having to spend its money on fundraising. “We retain our typical efficiency without having to waste a lot of money on fundraising.”
He noted Direct Relief received $190 million last year in cash donations and another $1.5 billion in donations of medical goods.
“It’s been quite inspiring, quite humbling to see what people will do without being asked,” Mr. Tighe said.
The large donations enabled Direct Relief to help health centers during the pandemic.
“We didn’t expect to be distributing $77 million in grants during the last 14 months,” Mr. Tighe said. “It’s beyond what we reasonably anticipated.”
The donations are making it possible for Direct Relief to spend $12 to $14 million to help medical workers in Africa, Mr. Tighe said.
He explained Direct Relief works on immediate help and long-term solutions.
“I liken it to when a fire breaks out in California, which it does every year,” Mr. Tighe said. “You’ve got to put the fire out. And you’ve got to talk about global warming. You’ve got to do both.
“Everything we’re doing is to minimize the effects,” he said.
“Community health centers do not have the access to the type of philanthropic support that a major hospital does,” he said. “Our focus is looking at communities slammed the hardest by COVID.”
In addition, American author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated $50 million to Direct Relief last year to create the Hope with Equity Fund to help communities of color and low-income communities, which have been hit hard by COVID-19, Mr. Tighe said.
He added that others’ donations have brought the new fund up to $75 million.
Mr. Tighe noted the equity fund has an advisory board co-chaired by Dr. Byron Scott and Dr. Regina Benjamin, a former U.S. surgeon general. Board members represent entities such as the National Black Nurses Association and the Hispanice Health Alliance.
In addition to helping American communities and India, Direct Relief is looking at other areas hit hard by the pandemic, such as Brazil.
“Right now, we’ve committed a million dollars with CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), which was managing the first testing and vaccination site at Dodger Stadium and was created famously by Sean Penn, one of the founders of the organization,” Mr. Tighe said. “We were on a call with (Los Angeles) Mayor Eric Garcetti and the mayor of Rio de Janeiro. They provided a list of materials they needed. What they’ve asked for primarily is needles and syringes and some of the antigen tests that they’d like to do, to step up (COVID-19) testing in Rio.
“They’ve asked for 100,000 of the antigen tests. Working with manufacturers, it looks like we will be able to fill a big chunk of the request,” Mr. Tighe said.
Direct Relief is also focusing on Nepal. Noted Mr. Tighe, “Nepal has been relatively good, but is getting worse fast. The lesson with this virus has been that just when you think everything is fine, things change fast.”
During the pandemic, Direct Relief has paid careful attention to its own backyard. The Goleta nonprofit has given help to Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, Sansum Clinic and the Community Health Centers of the Central Coast, which serve North County and San Luis Obispo County.
“They were losing revenues, and we’ve been providing funding support, PPE and anything they need and we can get to them,” Mr. Tighe said. “We recognize the importance of getting as much PPE to frontline centers as possible.”
Mr. Tighe said 4,400 tons of PPE have flowed through Direct Relief since the pandemic started. “It’s far beyond anything we’ve done in 77 years.”
He added Direct Relief opened up its Goleta facility for Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics’ vaccinations clinics on Saturdays.
“In California, we feel we’ve turned the corner, going from the purple to red to orange tiers,” Mr. Tighe said, describing the path by Santa Barbara County and other counties.
“We’re always happy to do anything we can to help local facilities.”