James Kelly is the newly appointed head of the humanitarian organization GOAL USA, but less than a year ago his day job didn’t involve a suit and tie.
Then, Kelly’s daily mission was to save as many lives possible working with GOAL’s emergency response team in Pakistan. The Limerick man helped those displaced by the devastating floods, a stark contrast to the corporate drone of city life.
Founded by Irishman John O’Shea in 1977, GOAL has dedicated itself to alleviating suffering among the poor in the developing world.
Over three decades since its inception, the Irish international humanitarian organization has spent in excess of $1 billion through their humanitarian programs in more than 50 countries throughout the world.
On a recent Wednesday, Kelly sits in the Irish Voice offices, with boundless enthusiasm and an imploring tone. He states why donating to GOAL is money well spent.
“When you donate to GOAL over 95 cents in the dollar will go directly to the projects which we are implementing across 13 countries,” Kelly told said.
Kelly has worked on several humanitarian missions in places like Ghana, Haiti and Pakistan before trading his life in emergency response to represent GOAL in the Big Apple.
“Right now we are trying very hard to raise money and awareness of the horrific conditions in the horn of Africa,” Kelly says. “GOAL is working hard in Kenya and Ethiopia at the moment to help out with this growing emergency response,” Kelly states, before he goes on to detail exact progress of the “GOALies” (GOAL aid workers) dotted around Northeast Africa.
Kelly began his humanitarian career while studying in the University of Limerick. While attaining his bachelor’s degree he traveled to Ghana, West Africa where he worked in a secretarial school and leprosy rehabilitation center.
“I had been involved in homework clubs in St. Mary’s Park in Limerick before this, but it was really Ghana that got me involved in this area,” he said.
After college he spent two years working alongside St. Vincent DePaul in Haiti and became fluent in Haitian Kreyol. Tempted back to college life, Kelly began studying for a master’s in community education.
But when the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, he postponed his studies for a job with GOAL’s emergency response team in Port-au-Prince, a time he has vivid memories of.
“It was a very difficult time as you can imagine, the devastation all around us, the smell of decomposing bodies still stuck under all the rubble,” Kelly recalls.
“Hundreds of thousands of people were homeless with nowhere to go and no shelter therefore making the food distributions quite difficult to carry out.
“GOAL was chosen as one of eight organizations to participate in the blanket food distribution for Port-au-Prince. Over a six week period we managed to distribution food to almost 500,000 people,” Kelly recalls.
Working as a community manager, Kelly collaborated with other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and locally elected officials in the area.
“There was a major cash-for-work project also in full swing whereby we were trying to inject money into the local community while getting the community to clear rubble in their area,” he said.“Again, this was all taking place in very difficult circumstances with rubble blocking roads, security risks of looting and kidnappings and so on.”
Spending time last year working in Pakistan, the challenges were very different, with aid workers contending with the imminent threat of the Taliban. Upon Kelly’s arrival there were an estimated three million people displaced, with flood waters continuing to rise throughout the country.
“Working through local NGOs was a must as the Taliban in the area threatened to kidnap foreign aid workers and so our security was always on high alert,” said Kelly.
Reflecting on the most difficult aspect of his humanitarian work, Kelly admits even the daily routine of food distribution can prove to be very demanding.
“Having to turn people away at a food distribution is extremely tough,” says Kelly. “We have systems in place that allow us to do the job as best we can. If we were to distribute food to just anybody who shows up there would be chaos.
“In Pakistan we also made quick site visits to check on the needs of the people and unfortunately on the first visit when we arrived we realized that many children were severely malnourished and within days or even hours of dying. There was nothing we could do for those children we met that day,” he ruefully reflects.
Working 16-hour days for weeks on end, the demands are constant in an emergency response situation. Settling into his newfound corporate existence in New York City, the GOAL chief says the pace of life here sometimes brings his back to his relief effort days.
“In Haiti I think I didn’t ever have much time to sit and just think about things for a minute and NYC has the same effect,” Kelly admits.
With his front line work on hold for now, Kelly is doing his utmost to raise the profile of the GOAL in the U.S. This coming fall will see the return of the annual GOAL ball on November 11 in the Gotham Hall.
“It is a black tie event and we will have a casino, live music, auctions, an after party and lots more,” revealed Kelly.
Even from the comfort of his New York office, Kelly remains completely in tune with GOAL’s relief efforts throughout the world.
“I know the importance of spreading the work of GOAL and raising vital funds to keep these projects going,” he says.
“Having the opportunity to allow people here connect with the work of GOAL is something special, especially when I know exactly where the money is going and why,” he concluded.
To find out more information on the upcoming GOAL ball, contact [email protected] or call 212-831-7420.