Despite tremendous worldwide need for medical equipment, Direct Relief International is working to fill in the gaps for 47 different countries through efforts from its Santa Barbara headquarters.

Santa Barbara’s Direct Relief International (SBDRI) receives requests from all over the world and sends medical equipment, supplies, musical instruments and antibiotics. This year, the 55-year-old organization set an all-time record for itself by collecting $60 million in aid – close to $8 million more than their previous record.

In the last week alone, 11 shipments worth over $2.2 million were sent to six different countries, including medical aid for hospitals and clinics in the Bahamas, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Guatemala, Honduras and Romania.
The organization’s most recent shipments were partially funded by a major fund-raising event that included dinner and an auction sponsored by the Santa Barbara County Vinter’s Association.

The Oct. 14 wine auction raised $375,000 for the charity, according to Direct Relief International President and CEO Thomas Tighe. Vinter’s Association Executive Director Michael Perry said the association saw the fundraiser as a way to give back both locally and internationally.

“We want to promote the region,” Perry said. “This event would allow us to give funds to charity by giving back to the community. They [also] do tremendous work all over the world; it’s a great thing to work with someone based in the local community and yet support needy causes around the world.”

Direct Relief International was founded by European immigrants Denis Karczag and William Zimdin during World War II when they began preparing parcels of food, clothing and medicine for loved ones in the stranded regions of Europe, SBDRI Public Relations Officer Ken Grimwood said.

“They came here seeking refuge from the Nazis and starting sending packages of food and clothing to friends and relatives over the years,” he said. “Others wanted to do the same, and in 1948 their focus shifted to sending medical goods to health institutions.”

Grimwood said Direct Relief International is continuing to grow and is now ranked as one of the top 200 charities in the world.

“We have sent 175 shipments to 47 different countries and $1.6 million to help flood victims in Cambodia,” said Grimwood. “The Chronicle of Philanthropy just came out with the ranking of charities, … we’re one of the top 22 charities on the West Coast.”

Grants and donations from companies, foundations and private parties sponsor the organization, Grimwood said.

“Ninety-nine percent of medical goods are donated by companies that manufacture them. Johnson & Johnson, Kaiser, Pfizer, Teva and Midmark [are some of the sponsors],” he said. “Other aid includes grants from foundations and donations from the general public.”

Shipments are sent in response to specific requests and are not based on political, religious or social affiliations, Grimwood said.

“We do not send shipments anywhere of religious affiliation – we are nonpolitical,” he said. “We don’t randomly send these. What we do is work hand in hand with health projects we have come to know and trust, and send our shipments directly to them.”

Direct Relief International program officers, who specialize in certain countries, decide who on the organization’s “wish list” will receive aid, based on need.

“We have partners in the field that we’ve worked with. We see requests for assistance [and] if there’s a disaster we look for appropriate agencies, like near the center of the equator. The level of need is so great that it’s really sad, because we have an on-going wish list. We’re always looking for donations and hope to be able to expand to all the countries in need.”

The organization will hold a free public luncheon on Dec. 14 to showcase daily operations at its Santa Barbara offices, located at 27 S. La Patera Lane.

“It’s very satisfying working here … knowing that you’re helping all these people all over the world,” Grimwood said. “Knowing that what you do on a daily basis is helping to save lives and making lives better for people who are in desperate need is great.”