cTwo years ago, Payson's Randy Roberson was a news director and weekday morning talk-show host for local radio station, KMOG, when he met on-air guest-wannabe Dr. Larry Ward.
Ward altered Roberson's life in what the former talk-show host calls an incredibly positive way.
But at first handshake, Roberson was unimpressed.
"I hardly gave Larry the time of day, because I'd been inundated with people dying to get on the air with less than genuine motives," Roberson recalled. "When this guy came in, I was thinking, 'He's done what? How? Get outta here.' His story was just too big.
"But then I found out that Larry had not only done what he said he'd done, he was named the White House Ambassador to the Hungry World by Ronald Reagan, along with a number of international accolades."
Now that Roberson has traveled the world with Ward, he's quick to add that, "Not only does Larry know all the people he talks about, but they come out to greet us at airports with tears in their eyes."
The way Roberson tells it, soon after their initial meeting, Dr. Ward invited him to India. "I said, 'Sounds interesting. Let's go,' Roberson said.
The first thing Roberson learned on that trek was "what a spoiled brat I'd been all my life, and how far out of touch with reality I was." Human need, he found, was everywhere -- and not far behind was Dr. Ward.
"I was stunned by the type of assistance he was providing, and the level of integrity he was approaching it from. That's when I got bit by the relief bug."
And that's about when Roberson dropped his interests in radio and the real estate business to become the president and CEO of Ward's organization, World/Aid.
In addition to India, Roberson has traveled to Bangladesh, Korea and Turkey, to Colombia to help with earthquake relief, and to Kosovo as the peace accord was being signed.
"Hunger in Bangladesh certainly has its own brand of ugliness, and earthquakes and floods have their unique horrors. But the heartbreak of human hatred is a real different critter," Roberson said, recalling a Kosovo family of 15 who'd been pinned down by snipers in their own home.
"They couldn't go near the windows, couldn't go outside for fear of being shot. They had no electricity, no water, and finally they ran out of food. Collectively, as a family, they decided to go outside and just allow themselves to be killed. In doing so, all but four were killed."
Those four, Roberson said, survived by wiping the blood of their relatives on themselves and pretending to be dead as they were loaded onto the back of a truck for transport to a mass burial site.
"On the way, they jumped off the back of the truck -- sustaining more injuries, but managing to survive and walk to Albania, where I ran into them," he said.
"It's one thing to hear the stories and stats on TV, but it's quite another thing when you're there and looking into the faces of people who lived through it."
Roberson saw more of those faces during his recent trip to South Africa, from where he returned just two weeks ago.
"I met a family that lived at the confluence of two flooding rivers, and they watched a 30- to 60-foot wall of water wipe out their farm. Their crops are gone, there's nothing to eat. Somebody from their village had just been eaten by a crocodile. Three or four people had just died of cholera.
"The official death toll is around 800 bodies that they've recovered," Roberson said. "But the unofficial estimate, because of all the people missing, is about 8,000."
That number doesn't take into account all those who will die from disease as a result of the flooding, he added.
But in southern African countries, Roberson said, there is plenty of disease without natural disasters.
"There are over 10 million people at risk right now of contracting cholera," he said. "Where I stayed just outside of Mozambique, there was a little orphanage with about 400 kids. Water and mosquitoes are real problems there; they have about 18 children a week who contract malaria. In a number of nearby areas, cholera is also appearing.
"Larry Ward, who's been doing this for 33 years, says that this is the worst year that he can remember for the number and magnitude of disasters."
That's a monumental problem, not just for the world, but also World/Aid.
"We are a very small organization, and trying to respond to all these disasters has just zapped us," Roberson said. "I'm the only paid staff member, and I don't get paid that often. We're just financially tapped."
What little money World/Aid receives comes from public donations or grants from other relief organizations and foundations. And most of that goes toward such disaster relief equipment as water chlorinators -- breadbox-sized, battery-powered machines that can render 4,000 gallons of water per hour safe to drink. "They're very easy to maintain, very easy to teach someone how to safely operate, and extremely effective," Roberson said. "For disaster relief applications, its ideal."
But bringing water-chlorinating machines to South Africa is only a small part of his organization's goal for that country.
"We have a wonderfully unique opportunity to get a significant amount of relief goods directly to where they're needed without any interference," Roberson said. "We're getting a never-before-seen level of cooperation within South Africa at a time when that cooperation is desperately needed.
"But right now, the big question is this: through our networking with other relief agencies, with foundations, and with a very limited private donor base, what can we really do? We've been successful on a couple of occasions to get small grants, but we need a much bigger push.
"That's what I'm struggling with now."
Tax-deductible donations to World/Aid, a nonprofit 501 (c)(3), can be mailed to P.O. Box 393, Payson, AZ, 85547.