From Disaster To Opportunity - By: John Denvert

By Roy Van Broekhuizen

Calamity struck Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004, in the form of a 9.2 magnitude earthquake. The subsequent tsunami, with waves up to 100 feet high, killed over 230,000 people and destroyed over 90 miles of coastline in Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia.

On January 3, 2005, I received a call from the Missions Team at our church that would change my life forever: "Are you interested in being Tsunami Relief Coordinator for Saddleback Church?" Thus began my amazing odyssey, in which I witnessed death, destruction and ultimately salvation.

I had never before undertaken this kind of disaster relief project, which involved organizing and distributing volunteer teams, as well as spending $1.5 million in funds that were donated by members of Saddleback. I had only a few days to prepare, so I immediately emailed my contacts in Indonesia. My friend Larry, who has been a long-time missionary in Indonesia, committed to meet me at the small airport in Banda Aceh.

Along with a medical doctor, an orthopedic surgeon, and a retired fire chief, I boarded a grueling 19-hour flight from Los Angeles to Singapore, where we were delayed more than 7 hours due to large numbers of flights filled with relief workers from all around the world. The next flight for Medan, the largest city in Sumatra, took about 1.5 hours and, when we arrived, we were met with yet another delay of five hours. There was no air conditioning and we were all drenched from the heat and humidity.

When we finally landed in Banda Aceh it was late afternoon. Larry was there to pick us up in a small truck. On the drive into the city, we were overwhelmed by a smell so intense that it made our stomachs turn. The driver pointed to a big hole, the size of two football fields, filled with thousands of bodies where trucks were dumping them. It was a place of chaos - a disaster of mind-numbing proportions.

The Stench of Death

Once we dropped off our belongings at a house we rented, we used an Indonesian becak (rickshaw) to scope out the area towards the beaches, which suffered the most destruction. The roads were buried by debris and, although we all wore masks, the stench of death pierced through.

Corpses and body parts were strewn everywhere. It became apparent that the local people were digging bodies out of the rubble and placing them, covered, on the floors of open buildings. Homes on the beach were wiped out and people were still looking for remnants of possessions.

I can still hear the screaming and weeping of women and children running after the relief trucks, hoping their dad, mom, or any other family member might be on that vehicle. To this day, pictures of loved ones who were never found remain stuck on the walls of mosques, placed there by family members who are still holding out hope almost 10 years later.

Our team held its first meeting at the United Nations' local outpost. UN officials gave us a large map of the area to use for orientation and, once we got a grasp of the situation, we set up offices for our headquarters in a motel we rented.

We recruited Indonesian volunteers to put food packages together, built a large tent for them in the back of the motel, rented trucks and found truck drivers. We ordered basic food supplies, such as rice, canned meat, local vegetables and fruit. Some were donated and some we had to get from Medan, a 12-hour drive east of Banda Aceh. We mapped out a relief route, providing the survivors with food, water, clothing, temporary tents/barracks and whatever else we had available.

At 6:00 a. M. Every morning, we loaded up the trucks and drove to the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) camps to deliver the goods. We did this diligently on a daily basis for months. I was impressed with the highly organized nature of most of the NGOs (Non Government Organizations). We met with World Vision, World Relief, Save the Children, and many more, most of which were Christian organizations.

At first, the local people were suspicious of us. However, it opened their eyes - and hearts - to see that Christians were not their enemy as they had been brought up to believe.

The Acehnese people had already suffered so much tragedy. Prior to the tsunami, they had been subjected to an insurgency in Aceh waged by the Free Aceh Movement. Between 1976 and 2004 in the guerilla's fight for independence from Indonesia, an estimated 15,000 people were killed. The war was still going on when the 2004 tsunami struck the province.

Nonetheless, people from countries around the world gathered in this place of unrest, set aside their differences and came together to assist those in need. It's unfortunate that a tragedy of this magnitude had to occur to reveal that solidarity is possible. But it was a profound moment for me, when I stopped to realize the extent of this collective action by humanity.

I connected and became friends with a businessman who had been working in Aceh for many years, who had started chicken and fish farms and other agricultural projects that generate income for the local Acehnese. He suggested we partner together and take over the UN satellite after they left.

We thought of offering free Internet to those still involved in the relief effort and hired two Australian Internet experts to build the system in two weeks, along with a 50-meter tower. We had blazing Internet, even faster than what we had in the U. S. Internet cafes began springing up everywhere and stayed open late at night.

We launched several other projects: an English language learning center, a computer training center and an Internet cafe. We built homes and boats; we also provided seed money for the micro-finance of a local coffee shop and a convenience store, both which are still thriving today.

In the Bag

My wife Louise was so touched by my stories of these experiences, she quit her job and flew out to join me. Once in Aceh, she received a vision: her destiny was to help 1,200 tsunami victims. We began praying for guidance, which soon came. She made friends with an American woman in her 50s whose passion was helping the Acehnese people; she introduced us to the local handcraft tradition of embroidered handbags. It was then that the idea of developing these handbags as a means to provide further relief came to her mind.

When my contract with Saddleback ended about a year later, Louise brought some bags home and invited 20 of her friends to the house in an effort to "raise a few dollars" for the relief effort. She sold about $2,000 worth of handbags that day and 10 of the 20 friends requested to host fundraisers in their homes. She got so busy, she asked me to help. She would repeatedly say: "Bring more handbags home with you!" With each trip I brought back handbags and with the next a few more.

Now, you have to understand, I grew up as the oldest son of eight children. My dad was a prisoner of war in Japan for four years during World War II, fighting for the Dutch. He survived the atom bomb, beatings, starvation and more. He also was a black belt and an expert in many fighting arts. He was the epitome of masculinity and he was my role model. So when Louise wanted me to carry "handbags, " my first thought was "You've got to be kidding!"

Well, since then I have not only carried many handbags, but I've facilitated some bag-oriented home parties as well. The bottom line for me is what my pastor, Rick Warren, says in the first line of his book, The Purpose Driven Life: "It's not about you." Since then and until now, in every handbag, I can see the smiles of those we've helped. And this has become my motivation.

In August 2006, we decided to form a full-fledged corporation: Laga Designs International, Inc. We opened a training program for 12 tsunami survivors in Aceh. In the U. S., we began marketing the bags at local fashion events and trade shows.

A year later, we exhibited at AccessoriesTheShow in Las Vegas, through which we acquired a little over 300 small retailer shops to carry our handbags. However, because each handbag is handmade on non-electric treadle machines and takes quite a bit of time to make, we realized our production capabilities were insufficient to meet the demand.

Consequently, we started exploring shows aimed directly to consumers. We found a niche market of quilters and sewers who appreciate the intricate details and work that is involved in making our Laga Handbags. Our bags are exhibited in many quilt shows throughout the U. S., as well as at holiday events and women's conferences.

What started as a small part-time venture has now turned into a full-time business with a mission. Today, we are able to support over 300 people in the Aceh province. On April 13, 2010, the Laga Handbags story was shared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, with the help of our dear friend Malaak Compton-Rock, wife of comedian Chris Rock. Boy, did we experience "The Oprah Effect!" The publicity caused sales to soar.

Since that time, we've introduced Laga to several celebrities who have been extremely kind and supportive, including singer/songwriters Amy Grant and Vince Gill and R and B singer/actress Brandy; comedian Kim Coles of TV's Living Single and In Living Color; actress Pauley Perrette of NCIS; First Lady of Texas Anita Perry; First Lady Laura Bush; and music icon Lady Gaga. We're now seeking investors who have a heart and want to help people.

I've come to realize that many of my life's experiences and God-given abilities have prepared me for this specific task. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob truly has His Hands on my life. God put this labor of love and "business with a mission" in my heart, so I could fulfill my higher purpose on this earth.

And all God required of me was to say: "I'll go."

About the Author

Roy Eric van Broekhuizen was born in Jakarta, Indonesia. When he was nine years old, his family moved to Holland; they immigrated to the United States in 1961.

Roy attended Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, on a soccer scholarship. He was a professional guitar player, traveling with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue and opened for many artists. He also has held management positions and started small businesses. In 1997, he was one of the investment world's first day traders and became vice president of sales and marketing for the Online Trading Academy.

Roy went back to Indonesia in August 2004 to conduct "The Purpose Driven Life" seminars. He serves as CEO of Laga Designs International, Inc and is currently working on his book, From Disaster to Opportunity.

Contact Roy at:roy@lagahandbags.comhttp://www.laga-handbags.comFacebook. Twitter. Pinterest

I had never before undertaken this kind of disaster relief project, which involved organizing and distributing volunteer teams, as well as spending $1.5 million in funds that were donated by members of Saddleback. I had only a few days to prepare, so I immediately emailed my contacts in Indonesia.

If you wish to check out a great online magazine that is helping the people of Indonesia, follow this link to Laga Handbags. To shop for quality handmade handbags, visit us online now at