FREDERICK -- A month after graduating from Hood College with a master's degree in thanatology, Canadian native Andrea Warnick traveled to Sri Lanka to help tsunami survivors cope with their grief.
"I felt drawn to go," said the 28-year-old on Saturday during a brief return to Frederick to audit a course at Hood. "Here was a whole country of absolutely traumatized people."
With nursing experience, newly acquired credentials in thanatology -- the study of death and grief -- and no personal or job responsibilities, Ms. Warnick decided she should try to personally comfort tsunami survivors.
She had arrived at her parent's home in Vancouver, British Columbia, only a week before the tsunami hit Dec. 26. She had intended to move to Toronto and hunt for an apartment and job. After getting settled, she would return to Frederick to collect her belongings.
Instead, within a week of deciding to volunteer, she was on her way to northern Sri Lanka as part of a medical team from Maryland-based International Medical Health Organization (IMHO).
Friends in Frederick and across North America rallied to raise enough money -- about $2,000 -- to pay her airfare.
At first, Ms. Warnick worked in health clinics at refugee camps. While treating people for injuries, she would listen to their stories.
"There's the grandmother who frantically described how her young grandchildren desperately tried to cling to her, before being whisked away by the water. We didn't even need an interpreter to tell us what she was saying," Ms. Warnick wrote in an e-mail from Sri Lanka.
"Then there's the woman, Regina," who suffered seizures. "I discovered that three of her four children had perished in the tsunami. She had sent the sole surviving child to live with relatives for the time being for, as she said, 'I simply can't bear to feed only one mouth when a few weeks ago I was feeding four.'
"It was horrendous," Ms. Warnick said. "What do you do for people to help them heal emotionally?" What she decided to do was "so simple; I just listened to people."
She said that small act performed over and over again made a difference.
She would ask parents the names of their children who died. She would listen to husbands talk about their lost wives. She would hug mothers as they spoke about children being ripped from their arms by a roaring sea.
"It helped them not feel like a number," she said. They wanted to know the world grieved with them.
After completing her IMHO assignment, she visited villages along the southern coast. She traveled with a Sri Lankan driver and a fellow IMHO worker from Baltimore, Abigail Thomas.
The two women danced and played with the children or sat and talked with the adults. Even when interpreters weren't available, their mere presence seemed to have a soothing effect.
"Obviously, it is ideal if you can speak the language, but you can jump barriers to support people," Ms. Warnick said. "People just swarmed to tell their stories."
In the Sri Lankan coastal towns, there aren't enough people not impacted by the tsunami to support those who were, Ms. Warnick said. A woman who lost her husband isn't going to cry on the shoulder of a woman who lost all her children. Yet, a husband's drowning is a terrible loss and that woman needs support as well.
Sometimes, the Hood College alumna would pass out small gifts to children. She arrived in Sri Lanka carrying a duffel bag stuffed with crayons, stickers and toys. Others on the team were laden with medical supplies.
Having worked as a nurse with terminally ill children in Saudi Arabia and at camps for underprivileged children in Africa, she knew that sometimes people need more than medicine.
"Whoever said art therapy doesn't work in countries like Sri Lanka hasn't tried it," she said.
She handed out paper and crayons at an orphanage where only 31 of 120 children survived.
"The kids went nuts," she said. "Some drew towns engulfed by water. Others drew bodies."
She hopes to work with the founder of the orphanage, an orphan herself, to compile some of the artwork into a 2006 calendar. Proceeds from sales would go to rebuild the destroyed orphanage.
She said friends advised her to get the calendar on the market now, but she wants to wait until the one year anniversary of the tsunami.
"I feel here in the West, interest is dying off," she said. "But a year from now, the kids will still be traumatized."
She hopes the calendar will help regenerate interest in long-term relief efforts. Meanwhile, she plans to donate the leftover airfare funds raised by her friends to the orphanage. She also hopes to be able to travel to Sri Lanka again to work with the children.
If she decides to go, her friends in Frederick will be ready to help her.
"Andrea is incredible," said Nicole Orr of Frederick. "She taught me more about the world in half an hour than what I learned four years in school ... She does what you want to do."