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Santa Barbara-based nonprofit Direct Relief provides aid worldwide as well as locally

Direct Relief
Direct Relief distributes aid during emergencies


The international non-profit organization Direct Relief, based in Santa Barbara, provides humanitarian support free-of-charge to people around the world. Over the past year, the Central Coast has also benefited from their support.

After disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and yes, pandemics, Direct Relief responds with medicine and supplies.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has provided aid in the U.S. and other countries.

“We’re fortunate in that we do stockpile PPE for events like this,” said Thomas Tighe, CEO of Direct Relief.

Tighe said the coronavirus presented a new challenge because it hit simultaneously around the world.

“We scrambled to try to scale as fast and as much as we could but basically building on the same backbone that Direct Relief has created over 73 years of functionally performing a distribution function,” Tighe said.

The Direct Relief website says the organization has provided millions of dollars in support in the U.S. and abroad -- nearly 30-thousand shipments of emergency aid, and 24-hundred tons of personal protective equipment, which translates to millions of masks, face shields, gowns and gloves.

Local health facilities have benefited from their close proximity to the organization. Tighe said the organization has strong ties to the Central Coast and that it’s important to support the local area, in addition to their work worldwide.

“You don’t have to look far to find the same dynamic right here on the Central Coast. There’s different levels of access, different effects and risks with respect to health,” Tighe said.

In fact, local health care systems have gotten help from Direct Relief. Dr. Charles Fenzi works with Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, which includes eight non-profit community health clinics. He said they have received monetary support and COVID-related supplies.

“We’ve gotten a lot of financial help from Direct Relief, as well as supplies to help with distribution of vaccines and our testing,” Fenzi said.

The state of California has also benefited. The Direct Relief warehouse is equipped with refrigerators, diesel generators, and a Tesla microgrid. Tighe said the state asked the nonprofit to be a back-up cold storage location for vaccines -- a safeguard against potential disruptions to the power grid.

Tighe said Direct Relief will continue to respond to crisis situations, as usual, but they will also focus on the daily work to improve health outcomes in medically underserved communities.

“All emergencies tend to hit the poorest places hardest and the effects of every emergency tend to be more severe for those who were less well-off before the crisis,” Tighe said.

In response, Direct Relief recently started the Fund for Health Equity. It focuses on community health centers across the U.S. and has garnered support from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, and the NBA.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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