- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 13, 2005

There’s nothing stingy about local students’ reaction to the tsunami disaster that devastated several countries in December.

Students put aside their books and papers to raise money, gather supplies and offer whatever support they could to help tsunami victims.

A few might even spend their spring break in some of the nature-ravaged regions instead of Daytona Beach or another vacation hot spot.

What they might not have realized is that the effort taught them a little bit about giving as well as the steps needed to lend the best hand possible.

Gunjan Koul, a senior journalism major at American University, began brainstorming for relief-effort ideas shortly after she learned about the tragedy.

“We called everyone we knew over [winter] break,” Miss Koul says. “At AU, we’re a school that focuses on international service.”

Miss Koul, 21, soon created SHARE (Students Helping Asian Relief Efforts) along with a pal at the University of Virginia so they could raise funds and track their progress themselves.

Keeping tabs on the money, both how much is donated and where the cash goes, proved a crucial goal for SHARE.

“It’s a long-term relief effort … we didn’t want to give to big names” that would make it hard to measure how the money helped, she says.

The Internet made reaching out to potential donors a snap, she says.

Her group created a page on the Web site www.thefacebook.com, which lets college students connect for a variety of social purposes.

“It’s a great way to find people and invite them to join,” says Miss Koul, who reached out to 151 students via the Web site.

Miss Koul learned a hard reality about volunteerism: Results matter.

“I hate to say that, but people need to conceptualize it in that sense. Numbers translate,” she says. Toward that end, her group’s funds will go toward a specific project within the Center for Peace Building International. The money will help a fishing village in Sri Lanka hit hard by the tsunami. The funds will help rebuild it in the coming weeks and months, Miss Koul says.

She adds that a group of past and present American University students may travel to some tsunami-torn areas to provide hands-on help during the university’s spring break next month or in August as part of American’s Alternate Break program.

Robyn Wilkov, a sophomore at American, typifies the charitable bent of her fellow students. Miss Wilkov threw a Do Your Part Party Feb. 3 to create an awareness of just what role students can play in the disaster recovery.

Miss Wilkov was traveling in Colombia when the tsunami struck, and a few of her close friends were away from home, as well. They began plotting the course their volunteerism would take as soon as they returned to the United States.

“We thought college kids are always going out and having a good time. Why not incorporate that?” she asks.

The sophomore did just that, organizing her Do Your Part Party at the District’s Home nightclub. Miss Wilkov, who spread the word via e-mail “blasts” and about 5,000 fliers distributed around town, got a crash course in snaring sponsors and juggling an increased workload.

The nightclub charged a $15 entrance fee for college students and featured DJ Iaco and DJ Mixalis. An additional fund-raising stream came from a $10 raffle for such prizes as Washington Wizards gear. The night raised $13,000, she says.

“It’s amazing to see how many people have opened their hearts and have been so generous,” she says. Others couldn’t be moved to give no matter how hard she and her friends tried. “Learning not to take things personally” became part of the process, she says.

Miss Wilkov also learned to move quickly when it comes to charity work.

“You can get lost when you’re trying to help. You don’t know where to start,” she says.

College students aren’t the only ones taking great pains to raise funds, materials and hope for the tsunami victims.

Michelle Lowrey, a first-grade teacher at Arlington Traditional School, says her students raised more than $3,700 in one week to help the victims. Students performed a variety of chores in and around their neighborhoods for the cause.

Some girls donated money they had received for their birthdays. Others spent a sleepover in the kitchen baking cookies to sell the next day.

“They wanted to do something for people they never will meet but are in pain,” Mrs. Lowrey says.

The students’ charity work did more than help fill the coffers of UNICEF, the group designated to receive the funds, Mrs. Lowrey says. It reinforced the character-building lessons already in her curriculum.

“We do a unit on citizenship at the beginning of the year,” Mrs. Lowrey says. The fund-raising drive reinforced the idea that students are “citizens of the world” as well as their communities.

Students wanted to send toys for the children, but Mrs. Lowrey reminded them that the survivors had more pressing needs that would be resolved best by directing money to a group such as UNICEF, which already had boots on the ground overseas.

Nipun Chhabra, a second-year medical student at George Washington University, contacted a number of aid groups after learning of the disaster.

“I wanted to go with the organization I got the best response from,” Mr. Chhabra says.

The American Red Cross immediately warmed to his idea of gathering medical supplies from his fellow students and local hospitals to send overseas.

Mr. Chhabra, 25, says his two-week fund-raising drive around campus secured more than $3,000 plus a cache of medical supplies to be sent overseas in the coming weeks.

The disaster hit home for him in a number of ways.

“I spent a year before medical school abroad in South Korea. I traveled across Southeast Asia. It was disturbing to see how many people and tourists who were sitting on the beach, enjoying themselves like I was” suddenly got swept up in the disaster, he says.

Mr. Chhabra often contributes his time to a local medical shelter when his schedule allows, but this project marked his first full-scale volunteer effort.

“I’ve never taken the initiative to organize an event like this. It definitely made it a little more personal since I’ve visited there. My family is from there,” he says.

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