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The Rescuers

Staffers Help Bring Aid to World’s Neediest Areas

Even considering the economy, it seems unlikely anyone would answer a help-wanted ad touting no pay in exchange for long hours in “alligator-infested swamps,” but Wendell Cutting and Gary Becks expect they will.

Becks, special assistant to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), and Cutting, the lawmaker’s district chief of staff, are president and vice president, respectively, of the Rescue Task Force, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to sending humanitarian and medical aid to poor and disaster-stricken areas — particularly to conflict-prone and “remote, isolated areas of the globe,” according to the group’s mission statement.

The want ad is posted permanently on their Web site. Although they rely on volunteers — headquarters are Becks’ living room and overhead costs are 1.8 percent of their budget — they have distributed millions of dollars of relief items for victims of natural disasters and war, sending $3 million in aid alone to El Salvador after the January 2001 earthquake. Current projects include building a maternity ward and a medical clinic in a remote region of Honduras and running three schools for women and children in Afghanistan.

“The punch line,” Becks said in a phone interview, “is that we always need more volunteers, and we have to get more staffers involved.” Still, he says he is “humbled” by the level of bipartisan financial aid the organization already receives.

Cutting echoed that sentiment in a separate phone interview. “Every day is a holiday … a great opportunity to serve,” he said. “People on Congressional staffs should think about how they are in a unique position to help people.”

Becks, a former military paramedic in Vietnam and a fire department battalion commander, as well as a public policy expert listed in the “Heritage Foundation Guide To Public Policy Experts,” founded RTF in 1988 after participating in a charity mission organized by another organization to aide refugees from the Sandinista conflict on the Miskito Coast in Nicaragua and Honduras.

Cutting has been involved in civic projects since high school and, while in college, actually campaigned for Hunter’s father, R.O. Hunter (R), against then-Rep. John Tunney (D-Calif.) in 1968. Later, he was the youngest mayor of San Jacinto and helped found an orphanage on the Thai-Cambodian border during the Khmer Rouge regime. He has received several awards for his civic service, including the El Cajon Citizen of the Year award in 1996.

Cutting says he doesn’t know why he got involved in nonprofit work, but he found new inspiration after he survived terminal cancer in 1996 with the help of a stem-cell transplant from his twin brother.

“That was what I call my year of hell … after that you realize how life is very important, how time is very important,” Cutting said.

Cutting, who like Becks once worked on the Republican Research Committee, became involved with RTF when it responded to the Albanian-Kosovar refugees in 1999. Since then the staffers have worked on projects in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, as well as in Mexico, Afghanistan and Thailand.

Neither knows exactly how much time the two spend on Rescue Task Force — both their paid and unpaid jobs involve irregular hours — but they are pretty sure that most of their waking hours are full.

“I work seven days a week,” said Cutting, “I did take time off for the Super Bowl.”

“I work 12- to 16-hour days,” Becks added. “Of course, I’m single, that helps — well, you wonder why I’m single!”

They also credit Rep. Hunter for supporting their work with RTF. The Californian Congressman hasn’t gone on any of the jungle expeditions yet, Becks noted, but he has helped them distributed relief items in Mexico and his district.

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