by Downtown express
Date Published: Thursday January 6, 2005

January 05 - 11, 2005

Brian Houser, Aimee Althoff and other volunteers unload donations to the Tsunami Relief Center.

Makeshift tsunami relief center opens on Canal St.

By Ronda Kaysen

Robert Rowen, a Chelsea resident and photographer, spent most of New Year’s Day watching a steady stream of news about the Asian tsunamis on television. Overwhelmed by the devastating barrage of images, he posted an ad on Craigslist, an online bulletin board, asking where he could volunteer. Within 24 hours, he had not only found a partner — Nick Spanos, founder of the Soho real estate firm Bapple – but he had set up his own Tsunami Relief Center at west end of Canal St.

“I was sitting around all day and it was getting worse and worse,” said Rowen of the news coverage. “I felt like I had to do something.”

Spanos, through his real estate connections, found a landlord to loan him a vacant storefront. “The first landlord I called offered me a spot,” he said, standing in his makeshift relief center, a magnetic board with names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses behind him. The narrow storefront with whitewashed brick walls and an unfinished ceiling was still filled with the last tenant’s belongings when Spanos and Rowen arrived on Sunday. They, with the help of Spanos’ brother, spent the day cleaning it out.

They have paired up with the American Sri Lanka Buddhist Association in Queens and David Schwartz, who started two similar centers in Manhattan the same day and are now running the headquarters of Manhattan’s relief efforts. The Buddhist Association has filled five 20-foot containers for ship transport since it began its efforts, Spanos said. On Sunday, Spanos and Rowen transported 79 boxes of medical supplies to a doctor heading to Sri Lanka to help the 30,000 victims in that country alone. Some of the donations have been surprising: one person offered to donate a cargo airplane.

Spanos has been reaching out to pharmacies across the country, urging them to donate antibiotics and other medical supplies to South and South East Asia, which has been devastated by a 9.0 earthquake just west of Sumatra, Indonesia and a series of ensuing tsunamis that leveled coastal cities in at least 11 countries and killed upwards of 155,000 people. Spanos has even replied to Viagra e-mail blasts, hoping the senders might have a charitable streak and pony up any antibiotics in their coffers.

Spanos and Rowen plan to keep the center open as long as necessary and stay involved “until I find someone better than me to run it,” said Spanos.

Volunteers have been in short supply at the new center, despite an ad on Craigslist alerting Samaritans to the center. On Sunday, 30 volunteers turned out to help. But by Monday there were only five. On Tuesday afternoon, the center was empty except for Spanos, Rowen and their laptops. “The word didn’t really get out,” Spanos said.

Schwartz, who launched two Manhattan donation centers at two Manhattan Mini Storage facilities, one in Chelsea and the other in Midtown, thinks getting the word out is key. He has been receiving an e-mail an hour from people interested in lending a hand. Schwartz, who works in advertising, hopes that in the coming days more donations will trickle into the centers. The Buddhist Association no longer needs clothes or food. They need only medical supplies and cash.

Spanos worries the outpouring of support for the tsunami’s victims will wane long before the crisis is over. “They’re going to be affected for years,” he said. “Everyone should do what they can. You’ve got 150,000 dead. Even one dead person should move you to do something.”

People interested in making medical donations can leave drop-offs at 528 Canal St. at Washington St. near the West Side Highway anytime between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., seven days a week; 520 W 17th St at 11th Ave. between 7a.m. and 10 p.m., seven days a week; or 600 W. 58th St. at 12th Ave. between 7a.m. and 10 p.m., seven days a week. Call 646-879-5357 or e-mail for pickup and volunteer information. Cash donations to build orphanages and deliver food to Sri Lanka should be made to or Doctors Without Borders, an International Emergency Medical program is accepting donations through their Web site, or call 212-679-6800. The American Red Cross is also accepting donations. Visit their Web site, for more information.