Convincing Students to Care: One Year After the Earthquake in Haiti

Jan 12, 2011 10:16pm

ABC News on Campus reporter Olivia Stacey blogs: Clusters of students stopped on their way to class to look at an unusual sight: a line of tents on Turlington Plaza, the busiest location at the University of Florida, right in the center of campus. On any given school day this area is filled with campus organizations giving out free food and flyers. But earlier today, passers-by paid attention to the campers. After all, it wasn't just any school day; it was the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Students camped out in tents set up by Gators United for Haiti as a reminder of the grim reality many  Haitians face today. According to the U.S. government there are still about a million people in Haiti living in tents.  “I had no idea,” said Lauren Purcell, a sophomore at UF and one of many students unaware that such a large number of people in Haiti are still displaced. It all hits close to home for University of Florida senior Sky Georges (pictured above). Georges lived in Haiti until he was 11 years old and now runs Gators United for Haiti. He saw the widespread debris firsthand during a recent trip to his home nation. Georges has seen a decline in support among the UF student body in recent months. He remembers the overwhelming reaction when the quake first happened. “The initial response was a lot, everyone was on the same page,” he said.   Within one week, over 150 organizations at UF had joined the cause. Last year his group set a goal to raise $50,000 for the one-year anniversary of the earthquake. They were able to raise $42,000. With the University of Florida Athletic Association agreeing to match the amount they raised, they’ve reached a total of $84,000 and counting. Even so, Georges says they need support that goes beyond a dollar amount.  “The real goal is to make people care, to make people interested,” he said. That’s why Gators United for Haiti is planning events throughout the week including a 5K run and an auction. Georges hopes the programs will bring people back on board “even if it is just for the week.” Beth Waltrip, Director for Campus Programs at UF says it’s easy for students to forget. Despite lost momentum, she’s seen how this week’s events have already spurred people into taking action. “Students are reaching out to us again,” said Waltrip. “We’re thrilled to see that effort.” On Tuesday night nearly 200 people attended the screening of the documentary “Bound by Haiti,” produced by two former UF graduate students who were in Haiti when the quake struck. Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Fla., had also sent students and professors to Haiti prior to the earthquake. Four students and two staff members lost their lives in Haiti last year while participating in a course called "Journey of Hope.” In honor of the victims' lives, Lynn University unveiled a permanent memorial called Remembrance Plaza for the one-year anniversary. Volunteers also came together to prepare and package meals for impoverished communities in Haiti.  "Students and faculty alike have really embraced the opportunities to serve," said Joshua Glanzer, director of public relations at Lynn University.  "It was the saddest day in university history. There has been lots of emotion but as a result the student body has strengthened and come together for a greater cause." Over the past 12 months Florida State University’s student group Noles for Haiti has organized nearly every type of drive imaginable, from clothes to clean water. Co-founder Jesse O’Shea, a senior at FSU, strives to bring awareness to his college community.  
“The Haitian people are suffering beyond belief. They need our help. They need the world’s help,” he said.   O'Shea says the first step is for people to educate themselves, so they can educate others.  It's a philosophy that led him to spearhead the Global Haiti Initiative prior to the quake, an organization that now has 20 collegiate chapters across the United States, all dedicated to providing Haiti with relief and sustainability. 
Noles for Haiti held a candlelight vigil tonight to remember the lives that were lost and honor those who are struggling to survive: a visual reminder for students who may have forgotten. “A lot of people don’t feel they can make a difference”, said O’Shea. “But they can, whether it’s a 5-cent donation or something bigger.” Lawrence Gonzalez, a Florida State graduate student who is originally from Haiti, shares this same belief although he knows change won’t come easy.  Haiti still has a long way to go.  The past 12 months have brought aftershocks, a cholera outbreak and a political power struggle, causing more instability.  
“I’d love to see some level of reconstruction for Haiti,” said Gonzalez.  ”Some students can’t give a lot of money, but they do have time.”   ABC News on Campus reporters Clark Fouraker and Lynne Guey contributed to this report.

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