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Mercury News -  December 26, 2005
By Jessie Mangaliman

Dian Alyan's first orphanage opens in her native Indonesia today, one year after a massive earthquake triggered one of the world's deadliest waves across the Indian Ocean.

It feels like a lifetime ago that the former marketing manager from Sunnyvale was spending her days ``dreaming up ways for women around the world to buy Pantene shampoo.''

Last year's tsunami killed uncles, aunts and cousins in Alyan's Aceh province birthplace, 40 family members in all.

``I felt helpless,'' she said last week. ``I kept thinking, `What am I supposed to do with this?' '

When she read about the risk of thousands of tsunami orphans being trafficked into prostitution and forced labor, the mother of two said she ``had found what I'm meant to do in this life.''

``Do you know Conrad Hilton?'' she asked, referring to the global hotel magnate. ``I'm going to do for orphanages what he did for hotels.

``I'm going to build the best orphanages in the world,'' she said with aplomb, ``and my clients are going to be the poorest of the poor.''

Located in the central highlands, the orphanage was built with money Alyan raised through her new Bay Area non-profit, Give Light Foundation. Alyan's family in Indonesia donated a 3,000-square-foot piece of land in Takengon, a lakeside village about 150 miles from the coastal city of Banda Aceh, which was devastated by the tsunami.

Alyan runs Give Light strictly with local volunteers. San Francisco lawyer Ruby Kazi guided her through the complicated paperwork required to establish a non-profit. Matthew Mengerink, a high-tech executive, donated $2,000 and joined the corps of a half-dozen volunteers who helped Alyan launch the Sunnyvale-based organization.

She wasn't interested in good intentions, or more money. She needed volunteers who could deliver. Those who didn't were fired, Mengerink said with a laugh. ``Have you heard of such a thing?'' he asked. ``Volunteers being fired?''

Board members like Mengerink and Kazi said it was precisely Alyan's unstinting business-like approach that impressed them.

``Some people approach the work of helping orphans like they approach a hobby,'' Mengerink said. ``Dian approached it like a living: with dedication and conviction.''

After raising initial funds for the orphanage, Alyan, her husband, Ashref, and their two young sons traveled to Aceh in March to draw up plans, witness the groundbreaking and oversee the initial construction. Alyan stayed on for three months. Ash Alyan, a product manager for Siebel Systems, returned home with the boys after 5 1/2 weeks.

``For a period of time, the orphanage was totally No. 1,'' Ash Alyan said.

Dian Alyan's personal loss, something that she doesn't dwell on, became known among members of the Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara, and the teachers and school children of the Granada Islamic School next door.

A group of industrious students dubbed ``The Help Club'' began collecting for the orphanage. In three months -- after selling hundreds of ``Wave of Hope'' T-shirts and holding pizza and movie benefits -- the Help Club became one of Give Light's biggest contributors.

The children raised $11,000.

``It was cool,'' said Saleh Saddoura, 12, a seventh-grader who joined with his friend Mohammad Erikat, 12, to become two of the club's first members.

``I'm happy to help,'' Saleh said, ``because it's really sad they lost their families.''

Kazi said the tsunami, which left more than 200,000 people dead or missing in 12 Indian Ocean countries and made a half-million people homeless, felt at first like a faraway tragedy.

``But what brought it home for me,'' Kazi said, ``was the fact that a friend was connected to this region. I had to do something more than whip out a checkbook.''

In three months, Alyan raised the first $50,000 of the $150,000 she needed to begin construction of the orphanage. Alyan named it Project Noordeen, after her great-great-grandfather, who ran an orphanage in Takengon many years ago.

Forty-eight children, the youngest 5 and the eldest 14, finished moving this weekend into two-story orphanage that overlooks a lake. Modeled after other orphan programs, Give Light finds sponsors for a child, for about $30 a month. The Help Club at Granada Islamic Center is sponsoring 18 children.

Alyan won't be there today for the official opening of Project Noordeen. But last week, she visited the 28 members of the Help Club to update them about the project. The children peppered her with questions. What does $1 pay for in Aceh? someone asked.

``What does $1 buy here?'' Alyan asked back.

``Candy!'' the kids said in unison.

``In Takengon,'' Alyan said, ``one dollar will pay for three meals for a child.''

Her answer drew silence at first. Then one of the children said, ``Let's send more.''