Crossing the Line From Caring to Doing Something

Alison Thompson with a Haitian orphan. Ms. Thompson will speak in Sag Harbor on July 15 about her experiences as a volunteer following several international disasters.

    Like tsunamis and earthquakes, Alison Thompson is a force of nature. The quick-thinking, fast-talking self-described Australian New Yorker didn't sit around in horror like so many others when, during the winter holidays of 2004, she saw on her television much of Indonesia destroyed by a tsunami. She grabbed her last $300 and hopped on a plane, with nothing guiding her except an overwhelming desire to be of service.
    Ms. Thompson's book, "The Third Wave," will be celebrated at Urban Zen in Sag Harbor on  July 15 from 6 to 8 p.m. with a reading and signing. On July 17, Ms. Thompson and WeAdvance.org, the organization that she co-founded with Maria Bello to combat gender-based violence, will be honored at a noon benefit at the Ross School in East Hampton, the Hamptons for Haiti, with a celebrity-filled guest list.
    Ms. Thompson was born in the outskirts of Sydney, Australia. The daughter of a preacher, she and her parents lived in more than 30 countries.    
    A former mathematics theorist, in 1990 she moved to New York and became an investment banker on Wall Street, later enrolling at New York University film school. Since becoming a full-time volunteer, Ms. Thompson spends her time traveling between New York, Haiti, Miami, and Sri Lanka.
    "You've got to cross the line, do something," she said. "Don't over-think it. You don't go expecting to save the whole country," said Ms. Thompson, who has spent the better part of a decade on the ground in the world's hardest-hit disaster areas. "You just look at those people lying on the ground right in front of you. You just concentrate on them."
    "I'm an average person," she said. "There are no special skills required to hold a baby or give someone a hug."
    The book is being published in conjunction with the release of a documentary DVD directed by Ms. Thompson, presented by Sean Penn, with Morgan Spurlock as executive producer.
    The title of Ms. Thompson's book refers to volunteers, who are the third group of people to show up, after the medical personnel and the Red Cross, when disaster strikes.
    Ms. Thompson spent 22 years in and around New York City and the Hamptons, and had volunteered after the events of Sept, 11, 2001, before being struck on a gut-level by the 2004 tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia.
    Ms. Thompson intended to help out for two weeks. She ended up staying for 14 months. While there, she and a small like-minded team set up the first tsunami early-warning center in Sri Lanka, which continues to save lives today, she said.
    In 2010, Ms. Thompson was awarded the Order of Australia, the highest civilian medal awarded by the Australian government and Queen Elizabeth II of England for her volunteer work.
    "It was lovely for my parents," she said with a laugh. "They're almost 80. But for me, it's all inside - bits of paper and medals don't mean anything to me.
    "Of her most recent efforts in Haiti, Ms. Thompson said, "It's the worst thing I've ever seen in my life."
    One of her most horrific moments was seeing "60 to 80 orphans, living in the dirt and sewage, all trying to look after each other," she said. "The oldest must have been about eight, holding a baby on her hip. They had worms and maggots all over them -- in their ears."
    Without assigning blame, Ms. Thompson said that relief efforts are necessary in disaster areas long after the media has lost interest and moved onto the next shocking world event.
    "I spent a night hearing a woman screaming for about an hour, getting raped, and the men laughing," she said. "It was horrible, but I couldn't tell what direction it was coming from. I couldn't stop it."
    Stopping gender-based violence is the mission of WeAdvance.org, the group started by Ms. Thompson and Maria Bello, an actress who "works her butt off in Haiti," said Ms. Thompson. "She is really special."
    "The Third Wave" is dedicated in part to Ms. Bello, who will appear in several films and TV shows this year.
    Aleda Frishman is the third co-founder of this organization that deals with protecting Haitian women and children who have been the victims of sexual assault. "I've seen a 3-year-old in a hospital after being raped," she said, explaining that it's a national problem.
    But the joys of volunteering, Ms. Thompson said, far outweigh the heartbreak. She recalled one of her happiest moments, sitting on the ground outside a hospital in Haiti when a little girl came over to her. "I gave her a capful of water," she said. "And she sucked it back like it was chocolate."
    "The smile that spread across her face was incredible, it was beautiful," Ms. Thompson said. "It was like I had taken her to Disneyland."
    "Then I realized it was her first taste of pure water."
    The verbal communication barrier is both the biggest and the smallest obstacle to volunteering in other countries. "But food, water - you use gestures," she said. "If you feel the emotion and the pain, if you can offer support with a hug and a smile, you don't have to speak the language."
    Ms. Thompson still doesn't keep much more than $300 in her checking account. "Money doesn't matter to me," she said. "I'm a billionaire inside."
    Tickets for "The Hamptons for Haiti" benefit are available on the WeAdvance.org Web site.