After she was laid off from a radiology-technology development firm in Tucson in 1996, Lisa Hopper jumped into her car and drove aimlessly into the desert. She eventually parked, got out of the car, and began to sob.
There in the desert, Hopper wrestled with her life's calling.
A vision of her destiny had appeared earlier to Hopper through a recurring dream: She was standing in front of an airplane that said "World Care" on it, checking a large load of boxes waiting for shipment.
While struggling with her emotions in the desert that day, Hopper cried out for guidance: "I know this is important. I know this is what I am supposed to do, but you need to give it to someone who has money."
At the time, she had no idea how many people she would eventually help.
In 1996, she founded a nonprofit, secular and nonpolitical humanitarian aid organization that she named World Care Civilian Emergency Relief Center. Armed with faith in her vision, $60,000 in the bank and a willingness to sacrifice her career in medicine, Hopper poured her heart and her savings into the venture. She initiated World Care's first program, Tools for Schools, by collecting school supplies in her garage.
World Care has come a long way since then. Now based in the former Julia Keen Elementary School near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, it has grown into an operation with more than 500 volunteers and five full-time staff members. In 2008, the organization distributed nearly $4 million in donated goods to communities hit by disasters; that number was nearly $3.5 million in 2009.
World Care has helped people in more than 60 countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti. Since a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, it has contributed more than $1.5 million in resources to the country. World Care also provided $220,000 in supplies following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year.
However, World Care focuses most of its resources on helping people hit by disasters in the U.S., especially in Arizona. Last year, it responded to the tornado that leveled large swaths of Joplin, Mo., and helped residents of Southern Arizona displaced by the massive Sierra Vista-area Monument Fire. In fact, 75 percent of World Care's aid goes to help organizations and communities in Southern Arizona, Hopper said.
To enable the organization to accomplish its goals, Hopper focused on efficiency and transparency while building it. She said her top priority is getting humanitarian aid to people in need quickly, and without the corruption that plagues the aid industry.
"I listed 27 things that really bothered me about the aid industry that I wanted to resolve or at least use as benchmarks for us to keep as priorities. And transparency was the top one, making sure we're not saying something and doing another," she said. World Care's financial records are open to the public.
"There are billions of dollars in this industry," Hopper said, but "there's no incentive to solve problems when there are so many people making so much money. In this industry, you can't be selfish. You can't become part of the problem."
Those who work closely with Hopper said her love for humanity guides how she structures and runs the organization.
"I heard the passion in her voice, and I saw it in her heart when we first met," said Peggy Clark, who has worked with Hopper since 2002. "When Lisa talks about getting on an airplane and traveling for 18 hours just to deliver aid, that's a heart."
Clark said it's not easy working in countries dealing with disasters.
"There's no electricity; there's no running water," she said. In Haiti, "I've taken showers in the rain. ... That's the type of thing you do in these places. You don't get a hot shower or food you recognize."
Clark said Hopper's integrity and her ability to build relationships has given World Care the credibility to attract and maintain donors.
Francis Goodenough, director of the pathology laboratory at University of Arizona Medical Center and the current president of the board of directors of World Care, has known Hopper for many years. They worked together at the medical center when Hopper was the associate director of the radiology department. She remembered the early days of World Care, when Hopper had no income and struggled to support herself.
"She was really kind of depressed in the beginning," Goodenough recalled. "She had to kick in a lot of money. ... She had this big plan, and this big idea, but it just wasn't getting off the ground."
But Hopper was determined not to fail, and said that World Care has today grown beyond her wildest dreams.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has selected World Care to be the official relief organization for disasters occurring in its Region 9, which covers Arizona, California, Nevada, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. World Care will manage the acquisition and distribution of resources should a catastrophe strike the region.
Clark, Goodenough and others who know her said Hopper deserves the lion's share of the credit for World Care's success. But Hopper would argue that none of it would be possible without World Care's massive volunteer base.
More than 15 years after she took that drive into the desert, Lisa Hopper's vision seems to have been fulfilled. Although she has seen almost unimaginable human suffering, often made worse by greed and corruption, Hopper said she also has discovered that people have an enormous capacity for selflessness, love and compassion.
As World Care has grown, so has Hopper's determination to fight for the impoverished and the oppressed. She said she can't imagine doing anything else.
"I feel God has put me on this Earth for this reason," she said.