In the wake of America's diminished reputation around the world, it is encouraging to be reminded that there are good guys among us working to improve our tarnished image. Sometimes they're right next door.
Take Ben LaBrot. He's a 32-year-old medical doctor who could clearly set up a successful practice in one of the tonier parts of L.A., enjoy holidays abroad in five-star hotels and generally live the life of a man who has it made.
Instead he's gathered a crew to sail a floating clinic to 51 nations primarily in Africa and Asia to bring free healthcare to those in desperate need, braving the storms of the ocean and the uncertainty of their welcome in the name of humanity.
I like that.
Born near Venice Beach, the son of a like-minded physician and a creative, caring mother, LaBrot was raised breathing salt air. A world traveler while still in his teens, he also trained as a marine biologist and seems drawn by a natural inclination to sail abroad and heal the world.
Toward that end, he has organized Floating Doctors and is preparing to set sail in November aboard the 60-foot schooner Endurance to test an idea born in his soul.
I learned of this on a backyard deck of his parents' home about a block from our house as a glowing full moon rose over the mountains of Topanga. It was the kind of magical evening when great plans are proposed, hopes soar and challenges reveal themselves. Monumental forces were at work here.
LaBrot was using the moment to unveil details of the two-year voyage by six men and two women, two of them medical doctors and the others prepared by inclination or training to navigate the high seas and treat those in need of medical attention.
An athletic 6-foot-1, 215-pounder with close-cropped hair and an engaging manner, LaBrot traveled to remote fishing villages in Mexico as a teenage marine biology student and saw up close the need for medical treatment among the inhabitants. Having observed it once, on subsequent trips he brought antibiotics and other medications furnished by his father for those he encountered. It was his first foreign medical mission.
"When you experience poverty so close to so much wealth, it makes it hard to put wealth on top of the list," he said, explaining an altruistic attitude. "You realize how lucky you are by accident of birth."
His education in the world's medical needs continued while traveling with his father across Africa and with an uncle throughout India. Then as a medical student and later as a doctor, he visited Thailand, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Europe. And, as he put it, "I saw a lot in front of me all the time."
When Bushmen on the Kalahari Desert learned he was a doctor on vacation, they sought his help, which he willingly gave.
"Some doctors don't like sidewalk confrontations," he said that moonlit night in Topanga. "I love them. When you have something to offer with no expectation of a reward, it cuts through barriers of all kinds."
The idea for Floating Doctors emerged in a childhood dream of sailing over the horizon, LaBrot says. He wanted to be a part of service to others, explaining, "I've always been willing to stop and help someone."
His own desire to "stop and help," his medical training and his love of the sea evolved into the mission of taking his dreams abroad. He has gathered his crew from the U.S., Ireland and Macedonia. They speak a myriad of languages and are trained in navigation, satellite communications, safety, boat maintenance and various forms of healthcare.
The Endurance, loaded with medical supplies, will serve as a clinic for those being treated for a variety of diseases and illnesses. Medical teams will also visit patients in their homes and villages when the need arises.
LaBrot knows that the ocean can be a dangerous place; 60 feet of aluminum is a sparse haven on a vast and stormy sea. Peril also exists in the volatile political climates of those countries he proposes to visit with advance local permission, including Vanuatu, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, Kenya, the Western Sahara, French Guiana, Suriname and Cuba.
To treat patients, to gather information on existing problems and to show the world that war isn't America's only export constitute a huge bag of goals, and it takes money to facilitate them. So far, Floating Doctors has raised $7,000 and needs almost $400,000 more. Its website, floatingdoctors.com, is seeking grants and private donations to put the project to sea in November.
I and others who gathered that evening were among the small donors endorsing the idea of sending a different kind of message from America.
LaBrot's desire to stop and help has taken on a large new meaning.