BARRY LAFORGIA ’76 PUTS INTO PRACTICE WHAT WE PREACH
Barry LaForgia can recall the day his life — and by extension those of untold thousands of others — changed forever.
He was on a fact-finding trip in Mexico City. In the midst of a trash dump that LaForgia estimates to have been the size of the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot, he saw people not merely sorting through the scraps for food, but actually living among the filth.
LaForgia heard his calling. Having earned his JD at USD’s School of Law, LaForgia had a thriving business law practice that he all but abandoned to help those in most need. What would become International Relief Teams (IRT) was born.
“People were living in conditions that anyone who has been blessed would find appalling,” he says. “It hit me hard. A voice in my head kept saying, ‘you have to do something. It’s just unacceptable that we have fellow humans living life like this.’”
Since 1988, IRT volunteers have delivered more than $343 million in humanitarian aid to disaster victims in 68 countries. Some of that aid was commodities: $337 million in medicines to hospitals and clinics serving the poor around the world; backpacks filled with food to distribute to food-in-secure children in San Diego. Some of it, too, was sweat equity: deploying 220 construction volunteers over four years to repair and rebuild homes in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
If LaForgia needed encouragement to answer his calling, he found it during one of IRT’s first missions. In Armenia with a group of volunteers offering assistance following a devastating earthquake, LaForgia had left the hospital to fetch supplies. As he was returning, a car pulled up. Mother Theresa emerged.
She dismissed his excitement at meeting her with a wave of her hand. “Praise God, not me,” she said. Then she leaned toward him. She told LaForgia that his work was not only appreciated by the earthquake victims, it was important to all of humanity.
“I had never felt so vulnerable as a human being,” LaForgia recalls. “It’s like I was looking into the eyes of God.”
A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, LaForgia had flown more than 100 combat missions in Vietnam and was a “Hurricane Hunter” — flying above tropical cyclones to gather weather data — before coming to USD’s School of Law.
LaForgia has invested long hours and not insignificant personal resources in IRT. The work, he says, has rewarded him many times over. His voice sometimes cracks as he talks about the impact IRT has had on countless lives.
“We recently received a photo of Bach, a 5-year-old boy from Vietnam whose life was saved by an IRT-trained neonatologist,” he adds, pauses a long moment, then clears tears from his throat. “Who knows what life has in store for Bach? At least he gets to find out.”
LaForgia says he’s inspired by the volunteers, kindred spirits who work to advance IRT’s mission.
“Most people on this planet are consumed with the day-to-day challenge of finding something to eat, of staying alive,” LaForgia says. “Our volunteers give up the comforts of home — sometimes sleeping on floors in bug-infested locations, going for days without showers or dealing with minimum sanitation — to serve others. In the process, their lives are transformed as well.
“I think we’re hard-wired by the Almighty to receive great joy and satisfaction when we work in service of our fellow humans.” — Timothy McKernan