Sara Henderson remembers exactly where she was on Christmas night five years ago, when she learned that a powerful earthquake had caused a tsunami off the coast of Indonesia, killing over 200,000 people and leaving far more without homes. “I was in New York for Christmas,” she told WVFC this week. “It was 9 p.m. New York time.”  Henderson’s body clock was partly on Jakarta time, since she’d been living in Jakarta, Indonesia, for most of the prior 15 years.

That night Henderson, who’d recently retired from investment banking after 25 years, was shocked and moved to help the country that had become her second home. But she knew almost nothing about Aceh, the war-torn region that had been at the storm’s epicenter.

“We weren’t allowed as foreigners to travel there,” she said. It wasn’t until a few months after she returned to Indonesia that Henderson saw Aceh for the first time, without an idea of what she might be able to do to help. And as she began her first project, building 41 homes in the devastated village of Rumpit, “I had to go through 32 military checkpoints every day,” she recalled, because the local civil war was in full effect.

That was then. Now, as 2009 turns into 2010,  there are no checkpoints after the August 2005 peace agreement between the Free Aceh movement and the Indonesian government, and Henderson is a resident of Aceh, where her Building Bridges to the Future Foundation/Yayasan Jembatab Masa Depan (JMD) keeps fiendishly busy working to do far more than rebuild homes. In the process, Henderson has found herself transformed, in a reinvention that she has experienced more like a growing up.

“I’ve never worked as hard in my life as in the past five years,” Henderson said. “Or experienced so many emotional ups and downs.”

That’s quite a statement from a woman who, prior to the tsunami, had raised four children, been one of the first female bankers in Asia, and refused to evacuate during the 2002 revolution that drove most international business and NGOs out of the country.

A native of Flatbush, Brooklyn, Henderson married young and went into banking after her children were born, partly because there were still few jobs open then for what was still called “a returning housewife.” She was offered a job at a Japanese trading company, she added, because “they revered age…I was maybe 30, but it meant I was old!”

In the  late 1980s, Henderson had her first posting in Asia, at the Hong Kong regional office of a New York investment firm. “They say not to leave traders in Asia too long, or you go native,” she said. “I guess I did.” Travel felt less and less like a chore, and more like home. “I looked upon all of that as a gift, not a job.” In 1991, Henderson transferred to the firm’s Jakarta office and bought a house there.

In 2002, after thousands of student protesters forced the then-government of President Abdurrahman Wahid to resign, “every country that had nationals there evacuated,” Henderson said. But after nine years in Jakarta, “my whole support system was there.” Despite her children’s efforts to woo her away from Asia, she continued to spend 30-50 percent of her time in Jakarta. Then came the storm.

Speaking of her first visit to Aceh, Henderson’s voice drops. “I’ve seen a lot, but never anything like that,” she said softly. “I’d think look, there’s a field — but then see bits of buildings, now only foundation. I’d see people living in tents, in the mud. And when you see these people whose eyes are dead….” She was struck by the resilience of people who had lost everything.

“If I lost my entire family, I wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning.” Her own equilibrium was challenged hearing each survivor’s story, over and over. “For months and months I had horrible nightmares.”

Henderson decided that rather than just help out a local project to build homes, “I’d take my own money and go to a village where no one else was.” The result was 41 new homes in the devastated village of Rumpit, which had lost 326 of its 500 inhabitants. “At first 41 was enough — in fact more than they needed,” until the 2005 peace agreement meant more and more refugees could return.

Finally, Henderson returned to the States, established a formal nonprofit and began to plan what it would do. “I realized I wasn’t a contractor,” she said. She began to work with Indonesia’s agency dedicated to reconstruction of the area, Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi [BRR], on building a center for women in Aceh.  Henderson’s then-new foundation was already working with UNIFEM on the Rumpit houses, and with the 41 widows whose homes had been lost to the storm. “The head of BRR had a dream that there would be a women’s center in every village,” said Henderson.

Together, UNIFEM and BBF built the first (and, still only) women’s center in Aceh. “We built the structure; UNIFEM did a lot of the programs,” said Henderson. But both agencies learned in the process that women in Aceh had needs far more basic than a new center, and “we never built another…. On our part, we veered off into adult education, because most women in Aceh cannot read. They sign by putting their thumbprint on things.”

This realization was the basis for BBF’s now-thriving education program,which is now just one of five key, interconnected development initiatives — all in partnership with local community leaders.

Stay tuned soon to watch Henderson as a leader, a dairy farmer, a baker and a grandmother, who is ready to take what she learned closer to home in Ulster County, New York.

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