Amid the growing crowd of donors in the church fellowship hall, Niranjan Gunaratnam's cell phone rang for the umpteenth time.
"No, no, we're not collecting any goods right now. We're focusing on funds," he told a stranger, one of hundreds who have called from around the world since the tsunami, wanting to help rebuild his brother-in-law's orphanage in Sri Lanka. "It's amazing, we don't even know these people. We can't keep up," he said. "It's a nice problem to have."
John Rosa of Darnestown, who runs a nonprofit organization with an orphanage in Italy, greets Kanya Sanders and son Sanjeevan, 10 months, at the Grace United Methodist Church fundraiser.
(Photos Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
At Grace United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg yesterday, more than 500 people dropped off checks or words of hope to the family of Dayalan Sanders, whose bravery saved 28 orphans from the disaster that killed more than 150,000 people in 11 countries.
The event was one of several tsunami relief fundraisers in the Washington area, held in such locations as yoga studios, nightclubs and community centers.
By Friday, more than $330 million in private funds had poured into U.S. charities, a total fast approaching the $350 million pledged by the U.S. government. Some call the donations the largest charitable effort in U.S. history.
Sanders's family members had hoped to raise $400,000 to rebuild the Samaritan Children's Home. As of Friday, they had collected about $150,000 as well as a commitment from Ford Motor Co. for $70,000.
"People have just been so kind and generous," said Dayalan's sister, Diyana Sanders, 40. "I never imagined anything like this."
At Grace United, where red and white Sri Lankan cloths draped donation tables, the giving came in many forms. Two Washington high schoolers volunteered to go to Sri Lanka this summer to help care for the children. The owner of an architectural design firm in Laurel wanted to expand the orphanage and build a retaining wall to guard against the sea.
Like many at the gathering, Bob Wathen, who has two adopted children, was moved by the tangible plight of the orphans.
"I can send my money blindly to the government, but that's not my thing," said Wathen, 51, a salesman from Gaithersburg, who added that he planned to make a donation. "I was so touched by his story. I just hope they can get back to where it was and move on."
On the morning of Dec. 26, Dayalan Sanders, 50, a U.S. citizen who left Gaithersburg in 1995 to start the orphanage, shepherded the children into a small outboard motorboat as the wall of water bore down on the whitewashed cottages. Back on land, the wreckage was total: buildings wiped away, a blanket of sand up to three feet deep, a corpse near the ruined chapel.
Since the tsunami, the orphans have slept in homes in a neighboring community. Dayalan Sanders is trying to buy a house to bring the children together and get them ready for the start of school on Monday, family members said.
As he works to make that happen there, his family and others helped from here.
At Boundless Yoga on U Street NW on Friday night, for example, studio owner Kim Weeks told her 25 cross-legged students to stretch, breathe and "send positive energy to the suffering in Asia." They also raised $1,000 for several relief organizations.