Rotary member sacrifices record deal for disaster relief

Todd Shea, right, a member of the Rotary Club of Inwood, Manhattan, New York, distributes food to victims of the 2013 Typhoon disaster in the Philippines.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Todd Shea

On September 11, 2001, Todd Shea found himself running toward ground zero. He had no business being there. A singer-songwriter with a record deal, Shea should have been prepping for a gig at CBGB, one of New York City's most iconic venues. Instead he was using his band's van to bring food, water, and supplies to first responders.

After five grueling days amid the rubble of the Twin Towers, Shea decided to sacrifice his musical career, and dedicate his life to disaster relief.

"Seeing the suffering in New York opened my eyes to what other people around the world are going through every day," says Shea. "I decided I wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem."

For the next 13 years Shea, 47, found himself in the epicenters of other disasters, including the South Asian tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. and the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the earthquake in Haiti and floods in Pakistan in 2010, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, and the typhoon in the Philippines in 2013.

During each disaster Shea says he's gained more knowledge about disaster relief logistics.

"Large efforts take time to take shape," says Shea. "Trained disaster responders, like doctors, firefighters, and EMTs, work best when they don't have to worry about the backline, such as food, water, and supplies. They have more time to do what they are trained to do."

After the Pakistan earthquake in 2005, Shea decided not to leave the area after many organizations did. He founded the Comprehensive Disaster Response Services (CDRS), which provides health care and aid to Pakistanis who would otherwise have limited access to medical care.

The organization includes a rapid disaster response team that provides security, logistics, and communication support to medical teams and government agencies that are on the ground.

"It's all about coordinating together. I've been too many places where efforts were either wasted or duplicated," he says. "One village has everything and one village has nothing. We spread out to areas not being reached and try to organize a centralized system where all agencies can communicate and work together."

The CDRS facility includes a dental unit, vaccination center, maternity ward, pharmacy, laboratory, and ambulance. Shea lives in Pakistan about nine months a year.

In 2009 Shea helped to found Sustainable Healthcare Initiatives Now Empowering Humanity, which is based in the U.S. and provides international disaster relief and long-term sustainable health care initiatives in developing countries.

Shea finds Rotary

It was during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans where Shea hooked up with Jim Kushner, past president and founding member of the Rotary Club of Inwood, Manhattan, New York. They coordinated animal rescue and the delivery of rubber rafts, and helped the military with search and rescue.

"Jim and I are like brothers. We share a passion for helping those who are in need," says Shea. "He's proven to me with his time, sweat, and blood that putting yourself in danger for others is a noble and worthy endeavor."

Since Katrina, the two have joined forces on every major disaster.

"Todd just keeps going. No matter what has to be done, he finds a way to get it done," says Kushner. "He's like a locomotive that doesn't slow down when barriers are in the way."

In August Shea joined the Inwood club. Rotary clubs are as good as its members, he says.

"If you're motivated and you want to make a real difference, then join a Rotary club. I would encourage people who want to make real change to use Rotary as a platform. There is no better organization for it."

Strumming for a cause

Just because Shea isn't chasing his dream of becoming a music star doesn't mean he put down the guitar for good. He launched a musical and cultural collaboration with Pakistani and American musicians called Sonic Peacemakers. He organizes and plays concerts in both countries to raise funds and awareness for vulnerable children in Pakistan.

"Children are left out of the equation," says Shea. "I created CDRS so I can give them the health care that American children are afforded every day."

About his frenetic pace, Shea says he doesn't know how else to go if he wants to make a change.

"The world can be a very ugly place," he says. "I'm just trying to do my part to help turn indifference, intolerance, and hatred to love, kindness, and compassion."


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