The University of Pennsylvania is lending a helping hand after a series of disasters leveled areas across the Western Hemisphere.
Days into the academic year as Hurricane Harvey barreled into Texas and moved north, Penn’s Student Intervention Services connected with the Registrar’s Office to identify students from the area in its path and notified each school to initiate student outreach. Following Harvey came Irma and then a series of earthquakes in Mexico and most recently Hurricane Maria. With each disaster, SIS continued to reach out to students impacted by the natural disasters, says its director, Sharon Smith.
“We look at students individually to find out exactly what their needs are, so that we can connect them to the appropriate offices and resources,” says Smith, who assisted Johnny Irizarry, the director of the Center for Hispanic Excellence, along with the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Weingarten Learning Resource Center, the University Chaplain’s office and cultural centers to host a gathering Sept. 25 at La Casa Latina.
“It was more than just students; there’s an entire community here of faculty, staff and students who were all severely impacted,” Smith says.
In a Sept. 26 a University wide memo, Penn President Amy Gutmann, along with Provost Wendell Pritchett and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli, outlined on-campus resources for those impacted by the disasters.
The memo also recognized two highly successful student-led initiatives designed to bolster relief efforts in Mexico and Puerto Rico.
Organized by the Mexican Student Association at Penn, or Mex@Penn, with the help of the Mexican Global Network and the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia, donations to “This One’s for Mexico,” have produced almost $60,000 for the Mexican Red Cross.
Three San Juan natives and members of Penn’s Puerto Rican Undergraduate Student Association, including José Diego Toro, a senior in the Wharton School, along with junior Gustavo Hachenburg, also of Wharton, and Andrea Barreras, a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences, brought together students from 115 colleges and universities across the country. “Students with Puerto Rico,” has raised more than $164,000 that will go to Unidos por Puerto Rico and focus on necessities like food and clean water.
Another group, “Penn Helps Puerto Rico,” is comprised of nearly 30 students in the Biomedical Graduate Studies group at the Perelman School of Medicine, including Adrian Rivera-Reyes, a Ph.D. student in the Cancer Biology Program from Carolina, Puerto Rico.
“Being a part of the diaspora is hard enough and, seeing our home being destroyed, we looked for ways to help from here,” Rivera-Reyes says.
Another of its organizers, Kevin Alicea-Torres, a Ph.D. candidate in the Cell and Molecular Biology Program, hails from Fajardo, Puerto Rico and says losing communication was tough.
“Not knowing about the status of our family was very stressful,” he says.
Andrea Guzmán, an organizer and a Ph.D. student in the Pharmacology Graduate Group from San Juan, agrees, adding phone service was completely lost when the hurricane hit.
“More than a week later, some students have not been able to speak with their relatives,” Guzmán says. “Service has been restored in some places, but communication is still hard.”
“Penn Helps Puerto Rico” teamed with members of the Wistar Institute and hosted bake sales that raised $9,000 toward recovery efforts. The Wistar Institute contributed $2,000.
The money will be donated to Americares; ConPRometidos, a non-profit that supports local organizations in Puerto Rico; the Hurricane Maria Community Relief and Recovery Fund; and Vieques en Rescate Inc.
But, Puerto Rico and Mexico are not the only places with which the University is concerned.
“All of the places are on our radar. We are reaching out to students, whether they’re from Houston or the Virgin Islands, to offer them support,” Chaplain Chaz Howard says. “We don’t know everyone, but we’re doing our best. If people are concerned or are in need of anything, please reach out, even if it’s just to talk.”
During its Hurricane Relief Project, the Greenfield Intercultural Center collected supplies which will be delivered to a shipping container in Virginia that will be sent to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Meanwhile, the Center continues to work with its students from Houston to identify ways to assist families there. Students are also exploring other ways to help with their counterparts in Puerto Rico and at the University of the Virgin Islands.
With each disaster, Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy posted recommendations for cash donations to “large organizations engaged in on-the-ground relief work” or “local, often smaller, organizations have knowledge and networks that allow them to quickly assess changing priorities and get help to many of the most vulnerable groups faster.” In the case of Hurricane Irma, for example, CHIP identified Feeding South Florida, an organization sending water and supplies to Florida Keys victims.
In addition to supporting relief efforts, Penn administrators are exploring the potential for future involvement, not just fundraising, but ways to be directly involved in the rebuilding of Mexico and Puerto Rico, Howard, says.
“It’s unsafe to do so now, but, when the time is right, students can possibly travel there to help rebuild,” Howard says, adding that in the meantime, “we continue to be emotional supports and provide a space for people to pray and to hold onto hope.”
“Some students have expressed interest in being directly involved in relief efforts in all of the various areas, when it is appropriate to do so,” says Valerie De Cruz, the director of the Greenfield Intercultural Center.
“They will need help well into the future,” Howard says.
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