Student organizations collaborate, respond to Haitian crisis with fund-raisers, events

Student organizations collaborated to create the Helping Haiti campaign. (credit: Jesse Kummer/Photo Staff) Student organizations collaborated to create the Helping Haiti campaign. (credit: Jesse Kummer/Photo Staff)

When an earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti nearly three weeks ago, the United States was quick to respond. Carnegie Mellon students were encouraged by faculty, student government, and the many service organizations on campus to send whatever help they could to the millions of affected Haitians. Carnegie Mellon’s Division of Student Affairs and student government organized and headed various events to help the cause, while hundreds of students went to great lengths to show their support for Haiti relief.
Student Body President Rotimi Abimbola was responsible for organizing the groups together and encouraging collaboration across organizations. Two days after the first quake struck, nearly 20 campus groups met to discuss their options. “Everybody had [a] small idea of what they wanted to do,” said Abimbola. “Everyone wanted to do something.”

These small ideas grew at an unmatched pace. Over the past two weeks, hundreds of dollars were collected and sent to nonprofit organizations like Doctors Without Borders and the Brother’s Brothers Foundation. Services were held in the form of prayer groups and candlelit vigils to honor those who lost their lives and their loved ones. Students also tried to address the serious medical issues facing Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. Around campus, groups set up boxes that encouraged students to deposit hygienic items to send to the victims, including buckets, hairbrushes, toothpaste, and toothbrushes. Other divisions of Carnegie Mellon, including the Silicon Valley campus in California, pledged support.

“Haiti’s always been really unfortunate,” said first-year computer science major Sammy Jelin, who collected donations on behalf of Student Life. “It’s good people are helping out.”

Besides funds, Carnegie Mellon has also been utilizing its technological expertise. The Language Technologies Institute has worked on an updated translation system using new translating technology to convert Creole, the language spoken by most of Haiti’s population, into other languages, including French, the language spoken by much of Haiti’s upper class. Once the translation data becomes available in a readable format, the Paris organization Translators Without Borders has promised to distribute it to relief workers in Haiti.

Bridging communication gaps is a crucial step in providing relief. Abimbola has seen firsthand the importance of translating in her experience with caring for orphans who moved from Haiti to Pittsburgh. She expressed her frustration at being unable to reassure these Haitian children of their safety and well-being, and that it “broke [her] heart.”

Carnegie Mellon has also considered the future of Haiti, and has taken several paths to contribute to the long-term recovery of the nation. Once the funds have been finalized, they will be distributed to their respective charity organizations as soon as possible. Carnegie Mellon has also not ruled out the possibility of taking on another project such as, Abimbola alluded, the reconstruction of a school and sending Carnegie Mellon students to Haiti as teachers. The School of Drama’s class of 2010 plans to dedicate their senior cabaret to Haiti and its reconstruction. An unnamed alumnus has pledged to match whatever amount of money Carnegie Mellon raises, dollar for dollar, with a donation of their own.

The relief effort has not been without controversy. One of the organizations to which Carnegie Mellon has pledged funds, Haitian singer Wyclef Jean’s Yéle foundation, has been under scrutiny for misdirecting funds. Such exploitation has left many feeling unwilling to donate without seeing the changes that their money will bring. Sharon Wang, a senior materials science major, expressed her belief that these people were “discouraged by the size of the [Helping Haiti] project” and unsure of what they could do.

Despite the long road to recovery ahead and the obstacles presently facing students, Abimbola believes that the campus community remains dedicated to joining together. “Despite our roles as organization leaders and students on campus,” she said, “you can still do things to help.”