When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia late last year, one of the first people on the scene was Margaret Larson. Working as an information officer for Mercy Corps, the Portland-based aid organization, Larson did what it took to help journalists understand and convey the full scope of what happened. She found journalists places to stay. She boarded them on a Mercy Corps plane so they could get to hard-hit areas. She took them, practically by the hand, to meet with disaster victims whose wrenching stories she had just heard.
"It's one thing to write about the vast devastation," Larson says. "It's another to sit with the woman who literally lost the grip of her 7- and 9-year-old kids." As a former NBC, KING-TV, and KIRO-TV journalist, Larson understands that stories are more powerful when they convey human consequences. Larson says she's trying to engage the world on a deeper level than she could in TV news. She wants people not only to know about but to feel what's going on across the globe.
Larson clearly does. "I don't know that I've ever cried that hard in my life," she says of her response to meeting the woman who watched the sea snatch her children. The combination of Larson's passion and her journalistic savvy has been a powerful tool in raising Mercy Corps' profile and getting its humanitarian message across. Now she's broadening her work. Wanting to get involved in African and AIDS issues, which are beyond Mercy Corps' focus, Larson left her full-time job at that organization to become an independent contractor for international nonprofits, most notably the Christian powerhouse World Vision in Federal Way.
Meeting near her Bellevue home at the Starbucks she uses as a second office—her studied broadcast persona supplanted by broad grins and casual clothes—Larson explains that her interest in international relief stretches back 20 years to when she helped a friend who was bringing Afghan children to the U.S. for medical care. But it wasn't until 9/11 that she began to think about jumping into such work full time. Though it was the middle of broadcast ratings season, she insisted on taking a leave from her anchor job at KING-TV and went with Mercy Corps to work in refugee camps on the Afghan border. She came back to KING but was gone again within a year to accept a permanent position at Mercy Corps. Soon after, in March 2003, she departed for Iraq.
It was a calmer time than now, and Larson stayed in the relatively safe southern part of the country, where the federal government had assigned Mercy Corps, one of the five federally funded aid organizations. Still, Larson saw an eyeful that makes her recoil from any cavalier talk of war and collateral damage. "That looks very different when you're standing by the bedside of a 4-year-old girl who lost her arm and leg in an errant bombing and is in a hospital that has no pain relievers." Larson stood by that bedside. She also saw enough of Saddam Hussein's destructive legacy to believe that there will be no quick fix in Iraq, especially given that aid organizations like Mercy Corps have had to pull out due to constant rebel violence.
It was the tsunami wreckage that shook her the most, though. "There were just bodies everywhere, protruding out of the sea. You'd step on a board and a head rolls out." The psychological horror was just as bad: People who had always gotten their livelihood from the sea now found the sea had turned on them.
Most recently, through her work with World Vision, Larson has entered a new realm. "I was not sure about a faith-based organization," she admits. She says, however, that she has encountered little beyond straightforward humanitarian relief and development work in the sprawling, billion-dollar Christian enterprise, which spans six continents. Traveling last fall to Uganda and Tanzania with World Vision workers, she says, "I went on condom runs with them."
More importantly, she found her latest cause: child soldiers who have been commandeered into fighting the long-running Ugandan civil war. For the next year, Larson will act exclusively as a World Vision spokesperson on the issue. During her trip, she visited a town called Gulu, upon which thousands of children descended every night, "like ghosts," having walked there from rural homes to find safety from rebel kidnappers. "It's one of the most dreadful things I've ever seen, and nobody knows about it," she says. With Larson on the case, that might be about to change. Mercy Corps (Portland), www.mercycorps.org; World Vision (Federal Way), www.worldvision.org.
Margaret Larson's Picks
Dahlia Lounge (downtown). "The food is fantastic, and I love [chef and owner] Tom Douglas. He's very active around hunger issues."
Best Restaurant on the Eastside:
Bis on Main, a small Bellevue bistro. "I eat there once a week." She loves the crab cakes.
Best Local TV Reporter:
KING-TV's Susannah Frame, who Larson says doggedly pursues a "lost art" of television: investigative journalism.
Best Nonprofit Working on Local Issues:
New Beginnings (www.newbegin.org), an organization serving domestic-abuse victims. "Its executive director [Lois Loontjens] was the first person to make the point to me that oftentimes the news events we covered were really incidents of domestic violence, but we didn't know that because we didn't ask the right questions."
Best Inspirational Local Figures:
Bill and Paula Clapp, founders of Global Partnerships (www.globalpartnerships.org), a Seattle nonprofit that fights international poverty with micro-lending programs. As a wealthy businessman, Bill Clapp is "one of those people that could be out flying his plane, and nobody would have said anything," Larson says. Instead, he's invested a lot of time and money into Global Partnerships. Of Paula Clapp, Larson says, "Good just radiates out of this woman."