“Bringing it Home”: Students Affected by Natural Disasters Organize Campaign for Disaster Relief

in Bryn Mawr/Features/News by

By EMILIA OTTE and SOPHIE WEBB, Editors
Photo by WANYI YANG

The morning that Hurricane Irma made landfall on the US Virgin Islands, on September 6, Jenisha Stapleton, BMC ‘19, was in the dining hall. “I remember, I had just gotten up. I was pacing. I got an instant headache, went to my room, and went to sleep, because I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

Her brother, at home in St. Thomas, had been sending her text messages with updates on the storm’s progress—a category five hurricane, at one point considered the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic.  

“The wind was so crazy, it burst open the shutters. He couldn’t get one of the doors closed,” she recounted. A friend of hers described the atmospheric pressure—so powerful that it made her ears pop. “Irma left a total devastation.”

The storm’s total damages have been estimated at $100 billion. Some of Stapleton’s friends and relatives lost their homes, and a cousin of one of her close friends died in the storm.

“And then, within two weeks, Maria came about, and we were on hurricane watch again,” Stapleton said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

A few weeks later, on September 19, Rebeca Salas, BMC ‘19, was just getting out of class when she received a text message from one of her friends: “Is your family okay?” She immediately checked the news, and discovered the reason for the message: a 7.1 magnitude earthquake had just hit Mexico City.

Salas immediately sent a message to her extended family members living in the area. “I was anxious the whole day,” she remembered. “Waiting for the reply message was the worst part.”

Salas, who is from Houston, had recently experienced first-hand the effects of a natural disaster in her own community. Many of her friends and family had their homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

At first, the hurricane didn’t seem like a big deal. “The day before, a lot of us were making fun of it,” said Salas, “And then the next day it was horrible—water is in your house and you’re just freaking out, trying to calm down your mom.”  

Her family was fortunate; others were not so lucky. “I had friends who had to be evacuated by the Red Cross.” She spent the last week of her summer volunteering, cleaning up a church that had flooded. The return to college left her feeling as though she could do nothing to help.

Then, the earthquake.  

Even after discovering that her family in Mexico was fine, the anxiety didn’t dissipate—she worried increasingly about the potential dangers from aftershocks.

The following day, September 20, Alexandra Acabá Berrocal, BMC ‘18, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, was watching Facebook videos of Hurricane Maria in her Spanish class, when she saw a video of her own street—-completely flooded.

“I was extremely worried,” she said. “In my house, three windows were broken and it was flooded.” Her parents went to stay with her grandparents. “They didn’t have electricity; they couldn’t work.”

Following the storm, she wasn’t immediately able to contact her parents. “I got extremely paranoid when no one answered, thinking that something bad had happened.”

As President of Mujeres*, Berrocal realized that many other students in the group had been impacted by the storm. They began thinking about ways that they could help.

The Bringing it Home Campaign, a drive for disaster relief victims, was initially organized by Alicia Clark, BMC ‘18, the president of SGA, in order to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey. She had the idea to start the campaign after talking with some friends of hers from Houston. “They showed me another side of the story I was reading up on,” she said. “It really impacted me on a different level.”

After the Hurricanes hit Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, student groups such as Mujeres* and the Migrant Rights Coalition, many of whose members are from or have family in Puerto Rico, Houston and Mexico, wanted to send aid to the communities that were suffering. Nattalya Pacheco, BMC ‘18, who is from the San Juan area of Puerto Rico, messaged Berrocal, Salas, the co-president of the Migrant Rights Coalition, Stapleton, co-President of BACaSo, and a few other individuals. The groups decided to join forces in an effort to provide relief for as many different areas of the world as possible.   

The drive, which became a continuation of the SGA campaign, is now collecting donations for people who have been affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and those impacted by the earthquakes in Mexico. The students created and placed collection boxes around the campus, and are asking for items such as toiletries, canned foods, advil, phone chargers, first aid kits, flashlights, and batteries. They also set up a Venmo account online for people to donate money, @BRINGINGITHOME. By the end of the first day, Berrocal said, the account had $100.

Being uprooted from your home places you in an extremely precarious situation. You have to find a place to stay, adjust to life without electricity, figure out insurance, and a million other things. But watching the destruction from afar makes you vulnerable in a different way.

“It’s extremely devastating to constantly see something negative,” explained Berrocal.

Even for those like Pacheco, whose families were not directly affected, it’s still a shock to realize that your home, the place where you’ve felt most secure, has drastically changed.

“I don’t recognize the pictures.” She described the damage: individuals at her grandmother’s church had lost everything, the ceilings at her old elementary school had caved in from water damage, the electricity wasn’t working and supermarkets were completely reliant on donations.

With all of this devastation in mind, focusing on anything else, including academics, seems impossible—and wrong.

“To be honest, for the first week I haven’t gotten anything done. I can’t concentrate,” said Pacheco. Although she knew it didn’t make sense, she described feeling guilty and powerless to help. “It feels absurd, being here.”

“I’ve been having trouble sleeping,” admitted Salas.

Talking to fellow students wasn’t easy. Several people said that other students seemed unaware of the impact of the storms, and preoccupied with classes and commitments on campus.

Pacheco explained, “It feels like people are living their normal lives. I don’t know that they understand the severity of the situation.”

Echoed Stapleton, “It’s like– ‘it’s not me, it’s not my problem’.”

Salas and Stapleton both responded positively to Dean Jennifer Walters’ efforts to offer support for and bring students together in the wake of the disasters. Walters estimates that at least 100 students on campus have been directly impacted by the recent storms.    

Salas believes that the drive is helping to better educate students about the ongoing effects of the natural disasters. Being part of the drive has made her feel useful. “I think it’s helpful to see people working so hard to provide relief—it’s really encouraging.”

The Bringing it Home drive will continue to collect monetary donations on Venmo through October 7, and item donations through October 11. Donations will be sent directly to Mexico and Puerto Rico through organizations such as Connected Unidos PA and Control de Carga, both of which operate out of Philadelphia.

Clark hopes that the Bringing it Home campaign will continue long after she graduates, as a way of aiding future individuals who suffer devastating losses in the wake of a natural event.  

“I’m really optimistic about what’s to come,” said Berrocal. “Natural disasters can bring people together.”

Stapleton agrees. “I am hopeful, because we are strong people, and we are resilient people.”  

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