Searching for answers

Amidst the shock and confusion in the wake of the worst natural disaster in recent history, Portland State students and faculty met Friday to brainstorm ways that they could best help victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

The tsunami, which struck Dec. 26, has left at least 150,000 dead and left countless others homeless, grieving and struggling to survive throughout Southeast Asia.

Approximately 30 attendees were present for the somber but hopeful 10 a.m. fundraising meeting in the Multicultural Center, including members from the Organization of International Affairs, the Thai Student Association, the Indian Student Association, Student Health and Counseling Services, the Campus Ministry, OSPIRG and ASPSU.

Christina Luther, assistant director of International Student Services, spearheaded the meeting.

Luther said she recognized that college students do not generally have a lot of cash on hand to spare, but that many still wanted to contribute what they were able to. The purpose of the meeting was to create ways to make helping with relief efforts something that everyone could do at PSU.

"There are a lot of people here who care and want to help," Luther said.

After nearly two hours of brainstorming, attendees had come up with several positive ways for people on campus to help out, including maintaining donation jars, hosting cultural forums, selling wristbands and providing a reflective service for directly affected students who want to talk about their personal experiences or just learn about those of others.

Tony Rasmussen, communications director for the Associated Students of Portland State University (ASPSU) attended on behalf of the student government and volunteered them to take on the task of acquiring, labeling and monitoring donation jars to be distributed throughout campus as soon as possible.

"We could get an army together to produce hundreds of jars," he said.

The donation jars will all sport the same label so that they will be easily recognizable for students and will display specific information about where funds will be sent.

Attendees suggested making a donation jar available in each educational department, as well as at student service windows in Neuberger Hall, and even raised the possibility of housing them in local businesses, such as Broadway Coffee and the Vietnamese restaurant Pho Thanh-Long.

The donation jars were a popular idea at the meeting because cash is what aid organizations are saying is most needed right now.

Eric Block, spokesperson for the international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps, said that they have had "an outpouring of people wanting to volunteer," but that what they really need is money.

Mercy Corps has been around since 1979. It has a local office in southwest Portland, and according to its web site, 91 percent of its resources are going directly to those in need.

The idea is that relief organizations, rather than individual volunteers, can more effectively use cash, applying their experience and knowledge in their direct contact with victims and the affected areas. They will be best able to purchase appropriate food and other essential materials, as well as to allocate funds for building shelter, purifying water and providing medical assistance.

According to the Mercy Corps web site, $5,000 would provide food, shelter, water and other essential materials to 50 families in Indonesia’s Aceh province. The best way for students to contribute, Block said, is by getting together and coming up with creative ways to raise funds.

"Every little bit does help," Block added. "It does make a difference."

With a student population of approximately 23,000, if every student donated just one dollar, PSU would be able to contribute nearly $23,000 to relief efforts from student contributions alone.

Tsunami Events

OSPIRG will host another donation table between Smith and Neuberger Hall today from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

A second brainstorming meeting will be held Friday, Jan. 14 at 10 a.m. in the Multicultural Center (Smith 228) to follow up on progress being made collectively and within the individual student groups.

Members of the Thai Student Association and the Indian Student Association also discussed the possibility of hosting cultural forums to better inform students about the regions that were affected by the tsunami and to share some personal experiences. This way students may be better able to understand the impact of the tsunami and the relief efforts that their donated funds will go to.

Another attendee at the meeting suggested putting up a display board in the Smith Memorial Student Union’s main floor hallway with cultural information and personal

stories provided by multicultural student groups or any others who wish to share them. The board would also list ways to contribute to relief efforts. Saori Clark, who was present at the meeting on behalf of Student Activities and Leadership Programs (SALP), volunteered to coordinate the display project.

Fundraising events such as silent auctions, concerts or raffles were also suggested, but some raised concerns due to low attendance at such events in the past because PSU is largely a commuter campus.

Campus ministry plans tsunami memorial

Chris Laing, the chaplain and campus pastor at the Lutheran Episcopal Campus Ministry, is coordinating "a simple, quiet service of reflection and prayer" to take place Thursday, Jan. 13 at 3 p.m. in the Koinonia House lounge, located on the corner of Southwest Broadway Avenue and Montgomery Street.
Though Campus Ministry is a Christian organization, students of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and other faiths are encouraged to come and reflect on their feelings.
"It is intended to be an interfaith event," Laing said.
There will be music and prayer as well as a time of silence. Students are encouraged to speak and share their experiences if they wish to do so. At least one speaker is already lined up to talk about her experience in Sri Lanka immediately before the tsunami.

Nevertheless, one event that has traditionally enjoyed a healthy attendance is the annual International Night, which hosts informational booths for various countries around the globe, attended by as many as 800 students in a single night, according to one meeting attendee. Several of those present at the meeting agreed that it would be good to work relief efforts into this event.

Thai Student Association member Narit Puttaraksar also suggested selling bracelets for $1 or $2. Puttaraksar said he believed this would be a great way for students to contribute funds and also to demonstrate their solidarity.

The idea was well received, but concerns were raised about the cost of purchasing or making the bracelets before selling them to students. Clark, along with coordinating the display board, volunteered to research the cost of bracelets.

Meredith Small, PSU coordinator for the Oregon State Public Interest Group (OSPIRG), then suggested the lower-cost alternative of sweatbands similar to the "vote" bands that were sold during the 2004 election season, and volunteered to begin researching the possibility.

OSPIRG, which has chapters across the state, has set its own statewide goal of raising $20,000 for relief efforts. According to Small, they managed to raise $331.84 in three hours at a donation table they had set up between Smith and Cramer Hall last Thursday. "I’m excited," Small said. "The main goal right now is to raise as much money as possible [and] people who have the money are willing to give it."

The average contribution, according to Small, was about $5.

"Given that students don’t have much money, $5 is like a meal," she added. "That’s pretty cool."

OSPIRG is contributing the funds it raises to Oxfam America, a non-profit international relief organization that promises 90 percent of all currently donated funds directly to tsunami relief.

One of the organization’s focuses right now, according to Small, is setting up a water purification system in Sri Lanka to help ward off the threat of waterborne diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid.

According to another meeting attendee, Residence Life has also been actively seeking to aid relief efforts and is currently in the middle of a two-week long loose change drive to collect donations in student housing that will ultimately be passed on to the Red Cross.

The Red Cross is currently trying to reach its goal of $400 million needed for immediate relief efforts as well as long-term recovery efforts, including mental health services.

According to the Red Cross web site, they have already been pledged $150 million for tsunami relief and are promising complete transparency with donation expenditure.

Events similar to the proposed ideas at PSU are also occurring at other universities in the Northwest. The University of Oregon raised about $400 in just one afternoon last week, according to Small, and according to Luther, the University of Washington raised $850 on their first day of fundraising – all of which prompted the idea of a little friendly and altruistic competition between schools to give additional incentive to type-A personalities.

Joel Saverymuthapulle, an international student from Sri Lanka, spoke up at the meeting to say that immediate relief is important, but added that there is a strong need for sustainable assistance as well. Saverymuthapulle is from Colombo, on the western coast of Sri Lanka, and was home when the tsunami struck.

He and his family were okay, he said, since it was the eastern side of the country that was hit by the waves. But Saverymuthapulle visited the damaged eastern area while he was home and says that he is worried about all the children that have been left without families. He said that he would like to help establish a scholarship fund at PSU for some of the children to have the opportunity to come and study here in the future.


Tsunami: The Aftermath

Over 150,000 are estimated dead throughout 11 Southeast Asian countries, primarily Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

Millions have been left homeless by the tsunami, and it is estimated that thousands more could die from disease and poor sanitation in the coming months.

Countries have already pledged more than $5 billion in aid for victims of the tsunami. The United States has pledged $350 million so far.

The tsunami was caused by a massive earthquake off the coast of Indonesia Dec. 26.

Luther agreed that sustainability is an issue and that the time to address it is now, while "the pain is still fresh in people’s minds."

Amy Spring, assistant director for community-based learning at the Center for Academic Excellence, suggested making it possible for students to set up a monthly automatic donation from their bank account for the next six months or year or so, even if it is just $5 per month. Spring also suggested creating a link to donate from the PSU web site’s home page.

Orlando Perez from Student Health and Counseling Services (SHAC) attended the meeting and said that SHAC is also trying to reach out and provide services to students at PSU who come from areas hit by the tsunami and may have been directly affected.

According to Luther, "There were hundreds of people here affected, about one quarter of the student population." She has also sent out e-mails to these students, but says so far she is not getting a response. For many of these students, she says, she understands that contacting PSU may be at the bottom of their priority list right now. Nevertheless, she is concerned. "It’s very important to show that there is support on campus," she remarked.

Luther said she will also work on lobbying congress to re-enact Special Student Relief, which she said enabled students suffering during the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s to reduce their course loads and work off campus to offset the extreme financial situations many of them found themselves in.

Luther said she is "hopeful that the government will acknowledge that this is a similar type of crisis."

Meanwhile, the ideas expressed at the meeting will begin to take form this week. Meeting attendees will also be researching aid organizations before selecting the one(s) they feel would be most appropriate.

Those mentioned as possibilities at the meeting were the aforementioned Mercy Corps and Red Cross, as well as the local Northwest Medical Teams International, Inc.

Part one of a four-part series
How professors are incorporating the disaster into classes
A campus memorial service for tsunami victims
Portland State students share their own connections to tsunami-stricken areas