Natural disasters impact students on campus, spurring relief efforts

After hurricanes and an earthquake, students with ties to affected areas fundraise to help.

Sofia Mulholland Cerkvenik, president of the Latino International Student Association, left, and Carlos Perez pose for portraits outside of Appleby Hall where the association held a fundraising event.

Easton Green

Sofia Mulholland Cerkvenik, president of the Latino International Student Association, left, and Carlos Perez pose for portraits outside of Appleby Hall where the association held a fundraising event.

by Cleo Krejci

In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria and the earthquakes in Mexico this September, University of Minnesota students with family or personal ties to those areas are pulling together to show support.

The Puerto Rican Student Association and the Latino International Student Association are leading relief efforts with support from other organizations and students. Many of the PSA and LISA members are personally impacted by the disasters. 

Kevin Ortiz-Rivera, a Ph.D student at the University and member of PSA, has family in Manatí, Puerto Rico and lived there for the first 24 years of his life.

Ortiz-Rivera said he was unable to make contact with his parents, aunt and cousins until 48 hours after the eye of the storm threatened his parents’ house.

He said his family is safe after the storm, but many in the country were not as fortunate.

“That day it was like my mind wasn’t here, it was over there,” Ortiz-Rivera said. “You rely on Facebook … and you start seeing these crazy videos of the storm, and you’re like, okay, hopefully that’s not where I live.” 

At the beginning of September, just days after the first hurricane hit Puerto Rico, Ortiz-Rivera and around 15 other students gathered to decide how to help those on the island.

As a result of that meeting, the students re-established the PSA, a group which had previously been dormant. 

Members of PSA said it is easier to establish fundraising efforts as an official student group. 

“Our goal is to send supplies, anything that people might need … essentials like clothes, canned food, women’s hygiene products,” said Javier Sierra-Pagán, a Ph.D student and PSA member.

“I thought this was going to be harder because everyone’s super busy, but I think everyone is doing a little bit of work and it’s coming together really well,” Sierra-Pagan said. “I’ve met so many Puerto Ricans I’ve never seen in my life.” 

Germán Vélez Reyes, a Ph.D student at the University, said his parents and grandparents live on the island but didn’t experience as much damage as other Puerto Ricans. He is traveling there to see his family in 10 days, he said.

“People have asked me how to help… not everyone does it, but I think everyday someone asks me ‘how’s your family doing?’” said Vélez Reyes. 

Carlos Pérez-Kerkvliet, a Ph.D student, couldn’t contact his mother, two brothers or father until a week after his hometown of Cayey, Puerto Rico, was hit by the storm.

Pérez-Kerkvliet said it has been difficult maneuvering through University policies to raise money for PSA. 

PSA is collecting donations in the Wallin Medical Biosciences Building 3-146, Smith Hall 115 and Amundson Hall 151.

LISA hosted a lunch fundraiser for natural disasters to raise money for Mexico and the Caribbean on Tuesday in Appleby Hall. 

LISA received funding for the event from the Minnesota Student Association and is planning to send monetary donations to impacted areas via the Red Cross.

Sofia Cerkvenik, LISA’s president, said volunteers from seven student groups are volunteering. 

Student groups are taking on most efforts for natural disaster relief, according to Allyson Tróchez, chair of the Latino/a/x Faculty and Staff Association.

The faculty published a letter online on Sept. 28 titled “Puerto Rico and Mexico Need Us,” outlining ways to help the affected areas.

“Our hope is not to duplicate efforts, but to support them,” said Mariana Aleixo, LFSA’s vice chair. 

Students in PSA said they would have liked to see a campus-wide response from the University showing support for the natural disasters.

“It’s always easy to become more involved in something if its personal, and we’re trying to make this personal for everyone on campus,” Cerkvenik said.