Lee Malany of Springfield has seen a world of destruction and despair in the past 10 years. But he's also witnessed the resiliency of the human spirit when confronted with situations that the average American couldn't possibly fathom or think of overcoming.
He's been to Kosovo, Darfur, Tajikistan, Macedonia, Bangladesh, China and New Guinea, as well as Louisiana and Mississippi during the Katrina crisis. As an engineer, attorney, Habitat for Humanity volunteer, Red Cross volunteer, representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, Rotary member, foster parent, husband, dad and grandpa, Malany has succeeded in doing what a lot of people wish they could do -- making the world a better place.
Malany travels to countries where nature or the ravages of war have destroyed whole communities, communities that are essentially the entire and only world those occupants have known. And he helps rebuild those communities.
Charles Setchell, shelter, settlements, and hazard mitigation adviser for the USAID Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, said Malany, 69, has a unique set of skills that make him indispensable.
"He's a kind of rock star when it comes to understanding shelter issues and the technical aspects of land management. Lee and I have been in some shaky places, in and out of Afghanistan, and I've been glad he was there with me," Setchell said. "He just has that uncanny ability to work in a country and not be an ugly American about it. He doesn't act like it's our way or no way. He has respect for countries and cultures, and people pick that up right away. He really is a rock star."
Setchell may have an office in Washington, but he's the kind of official Malany likes -- one who is part of the system, but a working part of the system. Setchell has been back and forth to Haiti and says he will go back again.
Hands moving, fidgeting in his seat, Malany is an animated kind of guy. It's easy to see he has that "let's get going and get this done" type of personality. He doesn't smile a lot; what he's involved in is serious business, sad business and sometimes heartbreaking business.
When he does smile, it lights him up. He smiles when he talks about rebuilding schools and necessary government buildings. He smiles when he talks about his wife and her tolerance of his habit of jetting off somewhere to some devastation and not being sure when he's coming back.
In contrast, his bride of 35 years, Barb, has an easy smile and a serene demeanor. She's like the calm in the eye of the storm.
"How do I adjust to him coming and going and not knowing exactly when he'll be back or where he might be? I just do. There's no sense in worrying about things you can't change," she said.
Lee Malany entered the world of disaster relief just at the right time, if there is a right time for disasters.
He got his start in shelters in Springfield with Habitat for Humanity -- only it wasn't exactly Habitat for Humanity yet.
"Our church paired with Rotary in 1993 to build a house," recalled Nancy Elwell. "We showed up not knowing what was going on, and Lee showed up with a hard hat and tool belt. There is nothing that man can't do, and he was so nice, even when we were all asking really stupid questions."
The rest, as they say, is history. Lee showed up for the next house-build; he got on the Habitat board with Elwell, and they drafted the local Habitat policy statement for the Springfield group.
"He set it all out, what the sweat equity part was, what we expected from them and what they would get from us. And then we found out Habitat wasn't just a house-building organization; it was also a social service agency. The new homeowners
didn't know anything about budgeting or what to do with a house -- how to mow a lawn or when the screens get put in. Malany and I developed the training program," Elwell said.
They were also instrumental in setting up Habitat's retail store here.
"He just has a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, and his personality is so infectious. You just want to be part of any project he's involved in," Elwell said.
His work with Habitat took Malany to New Guinea. Then he started volunteering with the Red Cross, and his special skills and knowledge of land management law and building got him hooked up with the USAID office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.
Malany has documented each area and each project in pictures. They aren't tourist pictures - they are gritty and real. "I just use a point and shoot," he said. "It has to fit flat in a pocket."
From building shelters for relocated refugees in Kosovo to helping displaced villagers in Darfur to what is soon to be his new project, rebuilding in Haiti, Malany stays on task.
"The nature of disasters has changed. Now, we have urban areas that are destroyed by earthquakes or floods. Most of the areas that are destroyed are what we would call the worst parts of town. Land is at a premium, and people are packed together in areas like Bangladesh and Haiti. The best land is kept farming. So the lowlands flood and the earthquake destroys house upon house built along the sides of hills where the land can't be farmed or used to support larger buildings," he said.
The world's initial response to a disaster, said Malany and Setchell, is to send stuff.
"People start collecting food and clothing, and that's not what can be used," Setchell said. "There's a whole new set of logistics there: How do we get it there? How do we store it? Can we use it? It makes no sense sending winter clothing to Haiti. That's why most relief organizations are now emphasizing cash."
That ties right in to one of Malany's hard and fast rules.
"If you are going into an area to rebuild, it must be a shelter that is sustainable there. We get lots of congressmen telling us that someone in their district makes great portable shelters. But if they can't be used or if it's something they can't repair, what's the sense?"
In places like Kosovo, USAID invoked what Malany calls the "one dry room" policy. More than 300,000 were displaced and then returned to Macedonia nearly as one unit.
"We had no place to put people. So we would fix up a house, pay the owner with food and materials, and they had to house a family for a certain time while we worked to get another shelter built.
"It's one of the hardest things to explain to someone here. A family where we are may lose a cow and that's it - they've lost everything. So when you rebuild, you try and get everything you can in that area, so as you build shelters, you also sustain the economy," he said.
"You work with the materials you have and the expertise you have in an area, so you build something that survives," Setchell said. The sense of accomplishment fuels the area to keep on with rebuilding, Malany added.
Malany's uncanny ability to work with heads of state as well as single homeowners is part of his unique skill set, Setchell said. Malany worked to "build a better Afghanistan" by being the chief counselor for the Ministry of Urban Development & Housing; he helped "Pakistan Grow Great" when he was the deputy director of the Town Planning and Urban Development Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority.
"We like to keep those titles positive," Malany said with a laugh.
The International Red Cross uses Malany for similar work.
"He's called in very often when we are moving people from camps to permanent shelters," said Roger Dahl, chief executive officer of the Illinois Capital Area Red Cross chapter.
"We are very, very proud of Lee's association with the Red Cross. One of Lee's strengths is that he can filter out the destruction and focus on the human beings. He's calm, level-headed and an extremely good ambassador for America and the Red Cross," Dahl said.
Earlier this year, Malany was honored by the local chapter as a "senior" hero.
"By no stretch of the imagination do we consider him as someone puttering around with this stuff as part of retirement. He's an American hero as far as we are concerned," Dahl said.
The Red Cross has just tabbed Malany to head up reconstruction efforts in Haiti for the next year. The Malanys will relocate there later his month.
Barb Malany is OK with picking up and moving. She loves Lee, loves what he does and she's supporting his efforts with relief organizations.
"I think this whole relationship works so well because we both have our own causes, and we are as passionate about them as we are about each other," Barb said. "We are both driven to achieve our goals, and we both understand that."
Barb, 67, met Lee at the University of Illinois.
"I was working in the physics library, and he was physics major. And you know," she mused, "I lived way back in the dorms and he never once walked me home."
But she knew it was love when spring break rolled around.
"I was flying home to Germany at spring break, and Lee drove all the way to Chicago (from Champaign) - that was when you could just walk right onto the plane - and he drove all the way there just to get on the plane and tell me goodbye. And I knew he was the one."
Barb's parents were in Germany because her dad was stationed there.
"I moved around a lot because my dad was in the military, and we were just used to moving. We knew when we got somewhere that we would make friends and then have to leave and -- we just knew that. I think that's helped me adapt to a lot of things. I think I was sort of a hippie," she said laughing.
"We were married in 1965, and I backpacked my first child to classes. I'd be writing an exam and I would put him in the observatory and turn up the intercom so I could hear if he cried," Barb said.
The Malanys have three biological children: Lee Carl, Siobhon and Carleen. Barb said Siobhon is another indication of her hippie leanings.
"We named her that because a bartender at an Irish pub said it was great name," she said.
The biological distinction is important because through the years foster children, Rotary exchange students and students with the Illinois Governmental Internship Program have stayed with the Malanys.
"Sometimes the kids overlap," Barb said. "Our son came home, and one of the scholarship kids opened the door and my son asked who he was -- and the boy said 'I live here. Who are you?'"
The foster children placed by the Department of Children and Family Services were considered problem teenagers.
"There wasn't a lot of bonding there," he said. "They wanted to get through it and get out of the program, but they needed us and we took care of them."
"All my life I traveled," Barb said, "then I bought the flower shop (Flowers LeGrand) and that became my neighborhood. I had a very good mentor, Stan Stern, and he wanted me to be the first female Rotary member. But I chickened out and became the second. It was great for networking, and that's how we got into the youth exchange program."
Now she's retired from the flower shop, but continues her work with youth by teaching at District 186's Lawrence Education Center.
Barb said she will miss her students, but can keep in touch via the Internet.
"At least we will be living in a house," she said. Lee's lived in boxcars, places with no running water, places similar to what you'd see in the series "M*A*S*H."
Haiti will be a challenge, he admitted.
"This is a disaster of such proportion. It's something we've never seen before. Katrina was awful. We had displaced people with nowhere to go, and that was also something we hadn't had to deal with before. But there was some infrastructure there. In Haiti, there is nothing," he said.
Are there times when he just wants to look around him and weep?
"Sometimes," he admitted after a pause, "but there is always hope. You can see it on the faces of the children. Everyone wants to help the children, but it is helping their parents that gives something for everyone to hold on to."
The world's response to disaster has gotten better. Malany said he'd like to see more centralization so there isn't duplication.
"We need a structure like the military. The military is very good at mobilizing and responding. We're getting better at disaster response because we have the Internet and cell phones. You can talk to people and set up meetings. So you have the food groups and the supplies group and the shelter group. But there is still duplication, and there are places where you don't have that type of communication," he said.
"You know, people talk about America, the Red Cross, all these agencies. When we go somewhere, those people don't see that. They see hope. From hope comes enthusiasm, and that's what keeps us going. I never want to be part of a system that just exists to be a system. I want to work within it."
Want to help?
Cash donations to help the continued efforts in Haiti are always welcome, Lee Malany and Roger Dahl, CEO?of the Illinois Capital Area Red Cross Chapter, said.
American Red Cross
Illinois Capital Area Chapter
1045 Outer Park Drive
Springfield, IL 62704
Story published Friday, July 2, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 4 )