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From Ripon center, group will send aid to the world

RIPON — Distribution centers keep popping up in the Northern San Joaquin Valley so companies can saturate California markets with their products.

A new one in Ripon has a humanitarian mission with a broader reach. It stores and ships equipment for treating the sick and saving lives in developing nations such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Sudan and Honduras.

In addition, forklifts move equipment that will be used to purify water and light homes in Third World countries and the warehouse has received 12,000 pairs of shoes for orphans in Romania and Africa's poorest countries.

Assist International, a nonprofit humanitarian group based in Scotts Valley, built the $2.7 million center in Ripon's industrial area near Highway 99 and is scheduled to hold an opening today for dignitaries.

The nonprofit group formerly used donated or rented warehouses between Monterey and the South Bay, but needed a permanent site for supplying the 10 humanitarian projects it does every year.

Ripon had inexpensive land and not-so-costly housing for the seven employees who work at the center, said Steve Savelich, vice president of communications, who moved here from Eugene, Ore., in October.

The 24,000-square-foot center also has access to freeways linked to the Port of Oakland, where much of the equipment and materials is put on cargo ships.

Savelich said new and used medical equipment is donated by hospitals across the country and companies such as General Electric. Technicians work on the equipment to make sure it's ready for use before it's shipped out.

Assist International specializes in equipping intensive care units, critical care units and operating rooms in developing nations. Often, those countries have doctors who were trained in the medical schools of Western nations, but they don't have the tools for treating patients.

"A hospital may have cardiologists who are working blind because they don't have a cardiac care monitoring system," said Robert Pagett, who founded Assist International in 1990. "When we come in with the latest medical technology and make sure it's running properly, it can take a room of death in Africa and make it a room of life."

Because of the lack of technology, health agencies in Third World countries often lose sorely needed doctors to wealthier nations. Before building a critical care unit for a regional hospital in Sri Lanka in 2006, the hospital had one cardiologist working in an office with a desk, chair and pencil, Savelich said.

Today, the hospital in Ratnapura, serving an area with more than 2 million people, has 10 cardiologists and 50 nurses treating patients with heart disease.

Assist International doesn't just deliver the hardware. It provides engineers — who often are volunteers — to teach hospital staff to operate and maintain the sophisticated equipment. Advance work is done to work out details such as whether the hospital's wiring is compatible with the equipment.

Making sure items usable

"When we go to hospitals in these countries, we always find equipment that has been donated by a well-meaning organization," said Ray Schmidt, vice president of operations. "They haven't even taken it out of the box because they can't use it."

Since its founding in 1990, Assist International has completed more than 80 projects in more than 50 countries. In 2007, it had a budget of $16.5 million and received $10.3 million in noncash donations.

Besides the donations from hospitals and equipment manufacturers, the organization garners financial support from foundations, faith-based organizations and people. Many of the shoes in the warehouse were donated by Adidas AG and the charity Soles4Souls.

Some of its projects have involved assistance from Stanislaus County groups. Dr. David Gallagher, a Modesto Rotarian, helped to secure grants to benefit orphans at the Caminul Felix Family Villages in Romania. Volunteers from the River Ranch Church of Modesto helped with building a home for orphans and widows in Jinja, Uganda.

A creamery is being developed at the Romanian complex in partnership with Foster Farms Dairy.

Pagett and his staff have used their connections to crack hard-to-reach countries such as Cuba, where they are planning to equip a Havana children's hospital. First, they have to share their plans with the U.S. State Department, which wants to know if the technology could be stolen for use in weapons systems, Pagett said.

The organization has a policy of not paying "under- the-table fees," or bribes, to foreign customs officials, though it's considered a cost of doing business in some countries, Schmidt said. Instead, they work with health officials or expatriates who know how to navigate the bureaucracy.

When a project is finished, it's not uncommon for the country's president to attend the ribbon cutting.

Schmidt said he wouldn't trade his job with anyone.

"I suppose I could find a higher-paying job," he said. "You get to see a lot of different countries and help save lives around the world."

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

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