It was a life-changing moment.
Snorkeling in the Indian Ocean off the coast of the Surin Islands on Dec. 26, 2004, Tom Van Holt watched in disbelief as a 10-foot-tall wave stretching a half-mile long approached him moving faster than 100 mph.
“The tsunami hit us in three different waves,” the Lawrence resident said. “My life was saved quite dramatically and heroically by the Thais. There were 75 of us in our group snorkeling. I went on to watch them save the lives of a bunch of others.”
Since then, Van Holt, 47, has devoted his life to helping others.
“I got a glancing blow, enough to really shake me up and teach me some really important things about life,” he said.
Van Holt has returned to Thailand six times since the tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people. He also helped out with the relief efforts in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Now the former owner of Starving Artists Moving is packing two small backpacks and preparing for a 36-hour journey across the globe to Manila, Philippines, to help after a series of typhoons pummeled the country, causing the worst flooding in four decades.
“I don’t speak the language,” Van Holt said. “I don’t know anyone. I’ve never been there before, and I’ll be thrust into a risky environment.”
Van Holt leaves for the trip today. He plans to take about $6,000 with him, money he believes will go a long way toward helping flood victims.
“To go into a disaster scene and just say, ‘Hey, I’m here. What do you need?’ It’s the most effective I can be. The best way I can help people is one-on-one,” Van Holt said. “I’ll give all that I can.”
Van Holt said he’d rather go to the scene of a disaster and offer his money and services directly, rather than sit back and write a check and hope that the money makes it to the people in need.
“I’d rather do it myself,” he said. “Not only is it knowing that it’s really being used effectively but it’s also seeing the people who you give it to. When you can do that, you know you’re making a difference.”
Van Holt hopes to stay in the Philippines a few months to help with the relief effort. He then plans on returning to Thailand to continue work on a book about the tsunami. He hopes his journey will inspire others to help.
“I’m not a rich person. I’m driven by conviction,” Van Holt said. “Anyone can do this and you don’t have to travel around the world. Go down to Mexico, or find some homeless people here and ask them what they need. You can make a difference just with $500.”