As American schools pitch in with an array of charitable projects in response to the tsunami in South Asia, experts say educators and students should consider carefully how they can most effectively support relief groups, avoid fund-raising scams, and incorporate their efforts into service-learning programs.
“The role of the schools is to educate, and this a great opportunity to get kids involved … and concerned about the world,” said Daniel Borochoff, the president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, based in Chicago. “[But] people need to remember that this [relief effort] is going to go on for years. We need to get people focused on the long-term issues and not just emergency needs.”
When students returned to school after the Christmas break, teachers and principals were bombarded with requests to help survivors of one of the worst natural disasters on record. Some schools immediately began fund raising, selling everything from popular arm bracelets to requests for songs played at school, while others sponsored bake sales, dress-up days, and quarter drives. (“U.S. Schools Find Lessons in Tsunami,” Jan. 12, 2005.)
“When the kids came back, they were so impacted by the images, they wanted to find a way help,” said Vincent Thompson, a spokesman for the 208,000-student Philadelphia school district, which has partnered with the Red Cross to spearhead its contributions. The district is encouraging parents, teachers, and students to make donations toward the relief effort at their local school offices until Jan. 31, what it believes is an appropriate end date for the current effort.
Meanwhile, in Moline, Ill., students at the Jane Addams Elementary School have organized a “Wave of Relief” fund-raiser and rallied students and parents to donate pocket change for the Red Cross. The student council of the Sunnyslope High School in Glendale, Ariz., is raising money by playing at school the favorite songs of student donors before and after school, between classes, and during lunch periods.
Experts in philanthropy and representatives of relief agencies applaud such efforts. But some caution that schools need to do research before undertaking donations and consider looking at long-term activities that will help with the rebuilding process in the places that were hard-hit. In particular, they say, schools should ask relief organizations what they need and avoid wasting time and effort by donating randomly collected or personal items.
“There have been too many disasters where people have sent unnecessary items,” said Mr. Borochoff, who recommends that schools partner with established charities and donate money instead of canned goods, medicine kits, and clothing. He and other experts point out that while donating such items makes people feel good, it’s often the last thing relief organizations need.
Transporting such items is an expensive and time-consuming process that can clog supply lines and warehouses—often with goods that are not culturally appropriate or do not meet the needs of a particular area. Food that looks strange or violates traditional beliefs may go unused even by people who are starving.
“It’s hard for donors to understand, but when you send stuff across the world, you don’t know if your blanket will end up in a closet or get used,” said Shikha Gulati, an associate with Do Something, an independent nonprofit organization based in New York City that launched a tsunami-relief fund last month. “Frankly, a lot of what they need is not going to be available here, and if it is, then it’s imported, so it’s better and more cost-effective to buy it there.”
Another potential problem facing school relief efforts is charity scams. In the hours after the earthquake and resulting tsunami struck on Dec. 26, online mailboxes were filled with thousands of fraudulent e-mails and solicitations, charity experts say. To guard against such schemes, schools need to do their homework.
Government agencies and nonprofit watchdog groups, from the FBI to ScamBusters.org, recommend that schools take steps to verify that an organization they want to support is legitimate by obtaining the charity’s address and phone number, checking to see if it is registered with federal and state agencies, and reviewing it at the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance’s Web site, which publishes standards for rating charities.
In addition, donors should never respond to an e-mail request for a donation, and they should avoid opening e-mail attachments claiming to have photos of the disaster, as they may contain computer viruses. Rather, donors should go directly to a charity’s Web site if they wish to contribute online.
Once a school has decided on an organization it will help, experts say, the school community should carefully consider what it hopes to give and over what time period. One of the biggest concerns facing some aid agencies is a lack of long-term support.
“We’re very concerned about what happens when the helpers leave and the media attention goes somewhere else,” said Larry Levine, the co-founder of Kids Can Make a Difference, a nonprofit organization based in Mystic, Conn.
Meanwhile, many schools have found that the disaster has helped bolster student awareness of global issues, and some are incorporating their responses into service learning and character education.
In Philadelphia, city schools chief Paul G. Vallas said that the tsunami relief effort is consistent with the values and character education the district has incorporated into its regular curriculum. The district has a crisis- intervention fund that helps students and community members who have suffered tragedies, such as the death of a parent or a fire at home.
“Our involvement in the tsunami relief was a natural extension,” Mr. Vallas said. “We’re trying to teach children that they have a broader responsibility … to care for one another, to give of themselves, and be concerned not only about their neighborhoods but the world at large.”
Places such as Florida have an acute understanding of what it takes to help people in the aftermath of a disaster. Having experienced numerous hurricanes, including a succession of destructive storms just last year, many students and educators there are planning long-term fund-raising efforts for the region along the Indian Ocean hit by the tsunami that will help rebuild roads, schools, and homes.
“I think our children in South Florida understand how a weather-related disaster effects lives, because this kind of thing has impacted them,” said Jeanne Korn, the assistant headmaster of the 2,000-student North Broward Preparatory Schools, a network of three private schools. “What we’ve seen here is that it’s not a day or a week or a month. It takes months and even years in a rebuilding process.”
While the breadth of U.S. schools’ generosity toward the tsunami victims is being welcomed, schools should not forget smaller charities working to provide help for problems that don’t make the global media spotlight, some observers say. They fear that less visible causes could feel the pinch.
But Kathleen McCarthy, the director of the New York City-based Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, said, “I think that concern is misplaced.”
“This is like impulse shopping,” she said of the response to the South Asian disaster. “It’s an immediate desire to help.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Tsunami-Relief Groups Advise K-12