Tsunami shifted course of former valley man's life

Nearly five years ago, Mark Lynch arrived in Southeast Asia for what promised to be the adventure of a lifetime.

After floating Laos' famed Mekong River with his brother, Chris Botto, the former Oakdale resident planned to head to the coast of Thailand to spend a month working for an animal rescue outfit.

Then, the day after Christmas 2004, an earthquake struck, triggering the tidal wave that destroyed coastlines and villages throughout the Indian Ocean rim.

At that point, they really didn't need Lynch to save sea turtles, since the hard-shelled critters were far better equipped than people to deal with the massive amount of water that came ashore.

Instead, the head of Wildlife Animal Rescue Thailand hinted strongly that Lynch should go home to the United States and raise money to help rebuild the village of Baan Talae Nork, where the organization is located.

His planned two-month stay lopped in half, he returned to Oakdale and began making presentations to schools and other organizations. He became a music promoter, staging a benefit concert at Oakdale High School. His mother, June Botto, taught at Magnolia Elementary at the time, and the school's parent-teacher club handled the money so that he wouldn't have to spend time and dollars to create his own nonprofit organization.

In just two weeks, Lynch raised $15,000 that went to help the tsunami victims of Baan Talae Nork. I wrote about his experiences and efforts in January 2005.

Sunday, he and girlfriend Jacque Price will board a plane bound for Thailand to see the fruits of his labors, returning to Southeast Asia for the first time since the disaster.

"I've just been following up and keeping in touch with them," said Lynch, 30.

What he knows going in is that the people in Baan Talae Nork and the other affected coastal areas have experienced great changes in their lives. So has he, but we'll get to that a few inches to the south in this column.

The disaster compelled the animal rescue organization to make people its focus during the rebuilding, Lynch said.

"Before the tsunami, they were focused on nonhuman issues," he said. "Now, they're more connected to the people, whether they're employing locals or letting people use the facility. They took a leadership role."

Staying for a month, Lynch will get a firsthand look at the recovery.

"How were the children and orphans affected?" he wonders. "I knew of two children who lost both parents, and they're all grown up now. People stepped up and kept families together. I'm interested in seeing where they're at mentally, economically and in terms of preparedness for the future."

Preparedness, as in making sure another tsunami won't have the same disastrous consequences.

When the government wanted to rebuild the village's school in the same location -- leaving it vulnerable to the next tidal wave -- the people protested. Instead, they bought another plot of land away from the flood plain and rebuilt there.

"And what about the fishing fleets?" he said. "What if (the next tsunami) knocks out the village's economic edge? They're looking at more trades -- furniture making, stuff like that."

Likewise, the tsunami changed Lynch's career focus. A wildlife biologist with a degree from California State University, Chico, he found the fund- raising just as intriguing as peering through a microscope.

"Up to that point, it'd been scientific research," he said.

Now he's involved with the ecological reserves, or nature parks, that Chico State runs in and around Chico.

"I run all of the research and education programs," he said.

He coordinates community walks and visits by schoolchildren to the reserves for the university's research foundation while finishing his master's degree in biology.

"I fast-tracked into community programs," he said.

It all began when the disaster cut short his Thailand stay five years ago.

"Without the tsunami, I wouldn't be where I am right now," he said.

Heading back to Thailand, this time expecting to see the coast, a rebuilt village and maybe even a sea turtle or two.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star