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Everett, Wash.

Published: Sunday, September 7, 2008

In Third World, he finds a new life of service

The woman from El Salvador facing a room of consultants in Seattle was frustrated and to the point. Their data-gathering system hadn't done what they said it would do, she said, and that had to change.

Children in rural villages were starving while local officials withheld desperately needed food supplies.

The discussion leader turned to the new guy, a 50-something computer geek sitting in as an observer.

"Could you help?"

David Isaak took a deep leap of faith. "I think I can."

Two and a half weeks later, a man whose previous international travel consisted of a day trip to Tijuana and a weekend in Vancouver, B.C., had his first passport and was on an airplane to El Salvador. He spent most of the flight learning the software he was about to teach Save the Children workers. One other minor problem: He didn't speak Spanish.

What he did know was how to use the mobile hand-held computer, or PDA, that ran the data-gathering software.

For more than 20 years Isaak had worked in the airplane industry, the last 11 at Boeing. He was a tool room clerk immersed in paperwork until the first computer arrived. Embracing the new technology, he helped transform record keeping in his department and kept right on learning.

He might still have been there had not the aftermath of 9-11 led to massive layoffs at Boeing in 2002.

"Everything unraveled," he said. Unemployed, his marriage disintegrating, he floundered until a friend suggested he use this as a chance to envision what he really wanted to do with his life. Good advice. Life changing as a matter of fact.

He moved into a cabin in the foothills outside of Arlington with his cat and his computer.

Two years later, an AA degree in environmental studies from Skagit Valley College in hand, he drove to Seattle to visit a consulting firm that provides high-tech solutions to nonprofit agencies.

That trip led to El Salvador.

He had four new PDAs with him when he landed. After days teaching and working through the intricacies of the new software, he went with them into the countryside.

"Like a lot of people I'd read about the civil war there, but I was not prepared to see children so damaged by the lack of food and health services."

Because the new data-gathering system was so quick, they were able to "leak" the fact that the information would be released to the United Nations in weeks not months. "That forced the mayor to release some of the food he'd been holding out to sell on the black market."

On his second visit to El Salvador, the battle to have food released was easing, Isaak said. On his third visit, he saw a chart on the wall.

"I said, 'What does that line mean," and they replied, 'That many less babies died because we were able to get food in there.' I said, 'Wow. This is what I want to do.'"

He's logged more than 300,000 miles and been in some of the most destitute countries of our world. He's now a consultant for Save the Children and other nonprofits, setting up data-gathering systems that help to keep food, medicine and other supplies reaching the people who need it most.

He's quick to point out he teaches that PDAs perform many essential tasks including how to share as well as collect vital information.

"If you're working with a young mother and, after you weigh and examine her baby, it appears the infant is dying of malnutrition you ask a few questions. Yes, she's having trouble nursing. Well, the PDA has a short training video that shows one of the older mothers in her village demonstrating successful nursing techniques."

Part of his work as a consultant is teaching aid workers how to introduce this new technology to people who haven't even seen a cell phone. "I do skits where I play the scared villager running away because they fear what they don't understand." That training is critical to their success in the field. Humor and patience helps make it happen.

Who knew all of those Boeing classes in how to facilitate a meeting and train co-workers would prove to be so useful from El Salvador to West Africa and dozens of countries in between?

Isaak's blog, www.sixbluedate.com/SmallFootpirnt/, includes dozens of photos from his work as well as his observations while in countries he once knew only by reading encyclopedias.

The images he carries with him are heart-wrenching. He described standing in a primitive health clinic in the humid heat with an unending line of pregnant women, many with children at their side, waiting to be registered for health care. At first the aid workers used laptops, but when the batteries died they switched to paper. Many in the line never reach the front to receive prenatal vitamins, vaccinations and a ration of food.

Some never will come back, he was told. The next words he heard are etched in his memory: "They'll have no reason. There won't be a baby."

The PDAs he brought those workers on a return visit will collect the same information the laptops do, but batteries keep them operational up to three days. That information is transferred to a main database so when those women return the process is quicker and more can be served.

In Bangladesh, one of the poorest of the Third World countries, more than 600,000 mothers are registered and served in this way.

Isaak will return in October to do a case study to see how they're doing. The success of this health and nutrition program has led to other Save the Children groups asking for PDAs in their programs, he said.

Certainly seven years ago, as his life seemed in ruins, he didn't envision flying around the world using technology to save lives. Yet that's where he is today. For him, working with nonprofit world relief agencies has been a life-changing experience he would not trade for his old life and job at Boeing.

"I used to 'travel' in an encyclopedia, and now I've stood there and looked at the real thing," he said. "Just put me down in an airport in the middle of nowhere that's when the fun begins."

Linda Bryant Smith writes about life as a senior citizen and the issues that concern, annoy and often irritate the heck out of her now that she lives in a world where nothing is ever truly fixed but her income. You can e-mail her at ljbryantsmith@yahoo.com.
© 2008 The Daily Herald Co., Everett, WA

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