Sri Lankan native asks Oak Parkers for relief aid

Padma Villagomez, one of several Sri Lankans living in Oak Park and River Forest, is asking residents to help in the relief effort.

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By KEN TRAINOR

Padma Abeysinghe Villagomez, 55, has lived in Oak Park since 1984. She runs a daycare in her home along with her husband, Reynaldo. She's never had occasion to ask her adopted community for a favor, but she's asking now.

Padma grew up in Sri Lanka, the island country famous for its teas, one of the Indian Ocean nations most heavily impacted by the deadly tsunami. As of last weekend, the death toll there stood at 28,500.

"I've never asked for a favor before," she said.

She and her husband are calling for donations. Their charity of choice is a Christian organization called World Vision. She and her husband have been sponsoring children in Sri Lanka and elsewhere around the world for the past 30 years. At the moment, they have four. World Vision's literature carries a photo endorsement from Jeopardy's Alex Trebek.

The Villagomezes aren't fussy about which charity donors choose, but they note that World Vision is already established in Sri Lanka, and they've seen where the dollars are going. Padma returns to her native land every year (she was there this past August) because family still lives there.

Fortunately, they live in the town of Wellampitiya, which is well inland, about 10 miles from the largest city, Colombo, so it was spared the devastation. A family from her town, however, was on vacation by the coast and all five were killed. She also has friends from California who traveled to Sri Lanka for a wedding Dec. 24 then headed west to the Maldives for the honeymoon and are still stranded there.

Padma couldn't get through on the phone Dec. 26 to learn her loved ones' fate, but a cousin in Canada managed to get through and relayed the news. Sri Lanka's population is approximately 29 million, Padma said, and some 5 million people were left homeless.

She says other native Sri Lankans live in Oak Park and River Forest, most of them working in the medical field. Padma came here at the urging of a friend, got married and never left.

Since the disaster, she's been watching CNN and calls home regularly.

"I have a big telephone bill," she said, "but I don't mind."

Tom Murphy is another Oak Parker with a local connection. His daughter Allison, 24, just finished a stint in the Peace Corps on the island chain of Vanauatu, formerly New Hebrides, northwest of New Zealand. The TV series Survivor was filmed on the island just north of her, Murphy said. It's a  volcanic island with electricity for about an hour a day.

One of her regular routines was calling and saying, "Don't worry, I'm OK." Once it was a typhoon with 200+ mph winds that lasted three days. Then there were earthquakes. Then the volcano erupted.

Once her teaching gig ended, she decided to travel around southern Asia. Murphy received a call from her at 7 a.m. that Sunday, saying, once again, before he even knew about the disaster, "Don't worry, I'm OK." Fortunately, she was in Singapore on the other side of Indonesia, so she wasn't affected. A few days later, she walked into the Peace Corps office in Bangkok, Thailand to pick up malaria pills, and they told her she was one of their "missing."

The Peace Corps tracks their volunteers closely, Murphy said.

Padma Abeysinghe and Reynaldo Villagomez, however, are more concerned about those who weren't so fortunate.

"This is the first time I've ever asked for help from my community," she said.

The address of World Vision-Sri Lanka is P.O. Box 70200, Tacoma, Wash. 98481-0200 (Phone: 800/777-5777).

Locally, Community Bank of Oak Park River Forest is collecting funds for the Thai-American Association of Illinois USA, a 501c3 non-profit organization. Checks should be made out to "Thailand Tsunami Relief Fund" and can be dropped off or sent to either of Community Bank's locations: 1001 Lake St., Oak Park 60301 or 7777 W. Lake St., River Forest 60305.

The Oak Park Board of Realtors is also collecting relief donations. Call Rich Gloor Jr. at 386-0150 or 524-1100 for more information.

Other agencies include:

? Catholic Relief Services-Archdiocese of Chicago Tsunami Relief, 155 E. Superior St., Chicago 60611 (www.catholicrelief.org)

? Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago: Jewish Federation South Asia Tsunami Relief Fund, 1 S. Franklin St., Rm. 703, Chicago 60606 (www.juf.org).

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