Columbia Woman — July 2010
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Dr. Trish Blair: Moving Mountains
Kate Smart Harrison

Have you ever witnessed acts of injustice or read about the struggle and strife another country, group or person has faced and thought, I could help, I want to help — this person, group or country deserves help! And then never taken action? Imagine if we all acted on those thoughts; if we all took the responsibility of loving our neighbor as ourselves to heart and acted on it? What would it look like?

It would look like A Call to Serve (acts, www.acalltoserve.org), the spirited nonprofi t the magnanimous and dynamic, Dr. Trish Blair established in 1992. And thus, it would look like Trish, herself. Rarely does one fi nd a human being so committed to walking the talk.

In the mid-1980s, after graduating from the University of Missouri School of Medicine and doing a surgery residency and internship in New York and Kentucky, Trish was part of the surgery faculty at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. After the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and the Armenian earthquake, the government asked medical teams to fl y to what was then the United Soviet Socialist Republic (ussr) to provide medical care. Trish was one of the doctors invited, and the seeds for acts were planted.

Over the next few years Trish made trips to various countries within the ussr to provide medical treatment, but one place, and its people, stole her heart — Georgia ( pronounced Sakartvelo, this is the Georgian spelling and pronunciation). Trish recounts flying in to Moscow, as that was the only way to enter the ussr before it disbanded, and Everything was in shades of gray — from cars to buildings to streets. From there, she took a plane to Georgia and was met by eye-popping color, from the cherry red, vibrant orange and neon yellow cars zipping along the roads, to the brilliant spirit of the Georgian people and “the ancient trend of generosity and hospitality” extended at every turn.

Trish made a number of trips to Georgia in the late ’80s and on each visit, she witnessed progress in a country that was in dire medical straights and experienced true kinship with the Georgian people. In 1989 the Georgian Medical Association was established (the first one in the ussr), and Trish was named an honorary member. On one visit she brought a US office staple, a fax machine, in her luggage. Her gift was met with disbelief — this was not allowed during Soviet times and was quickly stowed away. It was this gift, though, that opened the lines of communication, and forever changed Trish’s life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of Georgians and Americans.

In 1991 the ussrfell and a fax came chugging across the Atlantic, “Our patients are dying. We have no medicine. Will you help us help them?” This was followed by 21 pages of urgent medical needs. Dr. Trish Blair did not hesitate. She started making phone calls, contacting medical suppliers and before long, amassed 60 tons of medical supplies in a warehouse in Santa Clara, ca.

She now had the goods, but how to get them to Georgia? The answer? The Air National Guard stepped up to the plate. The Guard flew the supplies to Georgia, unloaded and returned home. While 60 tons sounds like an incredible amount, it was only a fraction of what was needed. Trish did not see this as a one-time humanitarian mission, but envisioned assisting in the creation of sustainable health care for the country.

Trish returned to the states ready to gather the nextroundOf supplies when she was told she would need to establish a nonprofit if she wanted to continue her mission — she obliged and acts was born in March 1992.

In 1992 Trish also took leave from her medical career and moved to Georgia. She spent four years there, serving as the ’American on the ground' that had to be in place for the Guard to fl y in to the country — note there was not yet an American Embassy. The Air National Guard made 17 trips with hundreds of tons medical supplies during this period.

Acts was going full speed ahead.

During a visit to Columbia in 1994, Trish was invited to the Boone County Medical Society gala, and as fate would have it, the scheduled keynote was airport bound and Trish was asked to speak on her experiences in Georgia — with fi ve minutes to prepare. Her speech inspired many, including the late Dr. Ron James, a physician who specialized in childhood onset diabetes (the founder of Camp Hickory Hill). He listened in disbelief as she shared that not a single doctor in the country specialized in this childhood disease — under ussr rule it was labeled a death sentence, period.

He listened to Trish's account of acquiring 35 tons of insulin from a pharmaceutical company that was going to trash said insulin because the labels were placed upside down. And he heard about the database for diabetic children that had been PHOTOS ON PAGE 10–11 COURTESY OF DR. TRISH BLAIR Above: On the ground in Tbilisi delivering supplies.

Left: Sister City Logo designed by local Columbia artist Patricia Heidger Hutchinson.

Created where there was none before. He was hooked, and subsequently took part in the fi rst delegation of Columbians to visit Georgia in 1995.

This visit in 1995, led to the establishment of actsMissouri and eventually, Columbia became Trish's new home base as well.

All of Trish’s stories are inspiring, but some are breathtaking.

She recounts acquiring 15 tons of baby food from Ralston Purina that had been over-cooked. She approached Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II, the country’s spiritual leader, and asked if he could teach her how best to distribute the food. His response? “And you will teach us how to do charity.” And this is how it goes, one hand helping another, a genuine partnership.

Acts does not come in and prescribe solutions, but listens to the needs of the Georgian people, “when Georgia presents us with a problem, we try to make it happen,” Trish says. And it is a collaborative effort; every project has a Georgian partner and a partner from the United States. These are not imperialistic, band-aid solutions, but collaborative, sustainable resolutions. “It's very hard for Georgian people to accept charity, they are used to giving — it's like us!”And the giving is not one-sided, Georgia and Missouri formed another unique bond in 1997 when Columbia and Kutaisi became sister cities — and the relationship is going strong. “This is a partnership — we are building bridges of friendship and peace. The genius of the sister city is it's a two-way street,” Trish says smiling. The pen-pal program between Grant elementary and Kutaisi elementary #19 is one way to open communication and create bonds. Another essential piece is the exchange program between the University of Missouri and Akaki Tsereteli State University in Kutaisi. Every year students from each university trade places and share their own gifts with their new city.

Columbia has been, and is, home to some brilliant Georgian scholars. The current list of talented Georgian students residing in Columbia includes: George Chikhladze, who recently graduated with a PhD in economics and is now an mu faculty member; Gvantsa Khizanishvili, a Georgiantrained physician who is completing a master's in public health at mu as an Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellow; and Nino Kalatozi, who is pursuing her PhD in educational leadership and policy analysis.

Trish has a goal — create more bonds between Missouri and Georgia via sister cities. Benefits abound for all involved — each city learning from the other.

Trish talks about Columbia with the same awe she talks about Georgia, “our community has such loving hearts,” she says. The generosity and support of Columbia residents have made many of ACTS’ accomplishments a reality. ACTS also partners with many amazing groups – Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions and churches – to make the magic happen (see inset for a few examples). One of Trish's favorite quotes is from the brilliant anthropologist, Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, indeed it's the only thing that ever has.” Trish and the people she has inspired are living, breathing proof of the accuracy of Mead's declaration.

Like Georgia, Trish is a treasure. One of those rare individuals who modestly walks through life, moving mountains as she goes.
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