“With great tragedy comes great opportunity…”

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“With great tragedy comes great opportunity – a chance for people to be who they always dreamed they could be – magnificent!” This was a comment Bill Frances made when interviewed by Dan Rather from CBS in Phuket where Bill was a volunteer helping out in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami.  During his presentation to the December 29 meeting of the Pattaya City Expats Club, he emphasized that it was worth repeating today because he believes that about people.

Bill began by pausing and taking a deep breath. He then explained that to this day he includes in his prayers, “Thank you for this breath, and the next one.” This is because too many people after the tsunami didn’t get to take that next breath. Bill said he was visiting Malaysia in December 2004 as a tourist. Further, because of his beard he was invited to play Father Christmas for the first time at a resort in Kota Kinabalu. Bill, who now resides in Thailand, has played Father Christmas many times since, including at the Club’s annual Christmas Program.

MC Richard Silverberg opens the last PCEC meeting of 2013 by inviting new members and visitors to introduce themselves.MC Richard Silverberg opens the last PCEC meeting of 2013 by inviting new members and visitors to introduce themselves.

The next day after his playing Father Christmas, he heard about the tsunami that struck Phuket and many other locations. Bill said he promptly booked a flight back to Bangkok; immediately going to the Red Cross to give blood and make a donation. He felt he could help further, so he took a flight to Phuket. There he discovered Phuket was already buzzing with a small army of professionals and countless volunteers.

Bill said the scope of the need was staggering, never before had anyone witnessed such massive devastation and loss of life.  People everywhere were working so hard, selflessly, and determined; like so many others, he bounced around trying to find a way to help, to no avail. Bill said it was like a big beehive, every bee doing its job. But just outside these busy bees were hundreds of foreigners, like him, that had talents and skills and a desire to help, but no place to use them.

Then enter Mark Pendlebury, an Australian with a brilliant idea; create a “Foreign Volunteers Center”.  With just a canopy, a table, a couple of chairs and a computer, Bill described how the word spread and they would receive requests resulting in their sending teams to hospitals as translators, providing data entry clerks, others to help stock and deliver food, and so much more. Also, every day they sent teams up north to assist forensic workers.

After a few days Bill said he got itchy and wanted to get out of a chair and into hands on helping. He described his hours long journey north with the intent to help photograph the victims. Further, on the way there he was staggered by the destruction – it had come so far inland, hurling cars into trees, leveling entire resorts to bare ground. Bodies lay side by side covered by white sheets waiting for transport. It was rough.  Upon arrival, he couldn’t find anyone who needed help with photography, but he did see another need and started helping with the carrying of plastic sheets containing the deceased. He mentioned the memory, even today, is almost unbearable and six hours was all he could take. Further, he fortunately found some angels who looked like foreign volunteers; they held him while he cried his eyes out.

Speaker for the December 29th meeting was familiar figure Bill Francis, who related his experiences as a volunteer following the Andaman Tsunami.Speaker for the December 29th meeting was familiar figure Bill Francis, who related his experiences as a volunteer following the Andaman Tsunami.

He returned to Phuket where he continued to work at the volunteer center. It was here that a member of the CBS team located him and said that Dan Rather had heard about “Father Christmas” who had volunteered to help out and would like to meet him. Bill said they had a long talk and that he consented to do an interview, which aired on CBS News (view the video at http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/tourist-turns-volunteer/).

Bill said they continued to send out volunteers until politics got involved and they were suddenly shut down; there one day and the next everything gone. So he moved on, to Koh Lanta. Although not as heavily hit as Phuket and other areas, Bill described how he learned that what this island of sea gypsies needed most was to fix or replace their boats as fishing was their livelihood.  Bill explained how they first had to gain their trust as they initially didn’t think people would actually work for their benefit. He then went on to describe how they started receiving donations, the effort they expended in buying material for the folks to fix their boats, the distance they had to go and the dealing for buying new boats to replace those that couldn’t be fixed. Afterward, in the evenings, they still had to do the paperwork to show what they were doing with the donations they received; thus it was 17 to 18 hour days to get this done.

After this 3 month effort, everyone they were working with got a boat, nets, and even long tail boat motors.  Bill also pointed out that they were not the only volunteers working on Koh Lanta; there were others repairing houses as well as others helping other communities. He said it was truly an international effort with people not only from Thailand, but from all over the world contributing time, effort, and money.

In conclusion, Bill repeated, “With great tragedy comes great opportunity – a chance for people to be who they always dreamed they could be – magnificent!”

Bill listens to one of the many questions from the audience, many of whom were in Thailand at the time of the tsunami.Bill listens to one of the many questions from the audience, many of whom were in Thailand at the time of the tsunami.

MC Richard presents Bill with a Certificate of Appreciation as thanks for his informative presentation of the drama following the tsunami.MC Richard presents Bill with a Certificate of Appreciation as thanks for his informative presentation of the drama following the tsunami.