Diyana Sanders has encountered something unexpected as she raises money for her brother's destroyed orphanage in Sri Lanka. Beyond collecting hundreds of checks from generous people in the Washington region, she has become a therapist of sorts for many who are reeling from the horror of the tsunami's destruction.
Since her brother's story of near-impossible survival with 28 orphans became public last week, Sanders's home phone in Gaithersburg has rarely been silent. Some of the benevolent strangers cry in sympathy. Others want to connect with her about feelings of anguish and despair.
Dayalan Sanders helped save 28 children as the orphanage he ran was destroyed by the tsunami.
The Sanders family's fundraiser: 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg. Checks can be made to Samaritan Home Relief; send to any Chevy Chase Bank or P.O. Box 83608, Gaithersburg, Md. 20883. 301-279-2947; www.samaritanchildrenshome.org
"It's been overwhelming and, at the same time, it has been a wonderful experience," said Sanders, 40, a native Sri Lankan who moved to Gaithersburg in 1985. "All the people who have been calling have been warm, nice people, and at times I felt like I was comforting them."
Her brother Dayalan Sanders and his wife, Kohila, survived the tsunami by grabbing the orphans as the storm approached and leaping onto a boat. They held on and prayed as the boat repeatedly was hurtled 20 feet into the air, then slammed back down. They watched as their orphanage on the country's eastern coast was swallowed by water.
At first, Diyana Sanders didn't know whether her brother was alive. When she learned he was safe, she decided to raise as much money as she could to help him.
She has collected about $70,000, mostly from private donations. She has a fundraiser planned for Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg, where she is hoping to collect more of the estimated $400,000 it will cost to rebuild the orphanage. All donations will go directly to the project, she said.
The tsunami, which left about 140,000 people dead, has sparked an outpouring of charity, with donations reaching $3.5 billion worldwide yesterday. A Washington law firm, Howrey Simon Arnold & White, announced yesterday that it plans to donate $1 million to relief efforts.
For Sanders's fundraiser, the staff at Fields Road Elementary School in Gaithersburg, where Sanders is a guidance counselor, is providing the food and holding a raffle. Sanders is grateful for the help, because she and her family are hustling just to keep up with the phone calls.
The first day the story went public, Sanders's husband, Niranjan Gunaratnam, who works from home, did not have a moment to work, or eat.
"I got home at 5 p.m., and my husband was sitting there with his lunch," Sanders said. "He had been taking so many calls, [he] hadn't been able to get a spoon in his mouth."
Sanders said her experience as a guidance counselor definitely has helped in the past week.
"People see this on TV and their heart goes out to this part of the world," Sanders said. "When they call here, they find a connection with someone from that part of the world. It helps in their healing because they feel helpless."
The fundraising also has been cathartic for her family, including her mother, Kamalan Sanders, 77, who lives with them, she said.
"It is nice for her to hear people saying nice things about her son, making her talk about her country," Sanders said. "Our whole family has one focus."
Dayalan Sanders, 50, who is a U.S. citizen, was living in Gaithersburg in 1995 when he decided to go home to Sri Lanka to start an orphanage. He scraped together enough money to begin the project and relied on donations to keep it going. A week and half ago, he saw it all wash away.
After the tsunami, he took his family and the orphans to a neighboring community, where they sleep on the floors of several homes. About 75 percent of the families in Navalady, the village surrounding the orphanage, did not survive, Dayalan Sanders told his sister. He desperately is looking for a home to rent for his family and the children, Gunaratnam said.
Gunaratnam said he believes so many people have responded to his family's plea for help because they are uncertain how large organizations might use their money.
"Here, the whole thing is managed by our family," he said. "It's personal."
Staff writer Jacqueline L. Salmon contributed to this report.