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Campus efforts to aid and comfort SoCal fire victims

| 05 November 2003


Pre-law student Andrae Gonzales solicits relief funds for fire victims at a student booth on Sproul Plaza. It was Gonzalez, brainstorming with friends over lunch, who came up with the idea to ask for donations and hand out free bottled water; they then joined forces with the campus Red Cross Club, which was setting similar plans in motion.
Cathy Cockrell photo

With 30 percent of Berkeley undergrads and 42,000 alumni hailing from southern California counties ravaged by wildfires, one question has been paramount for many on campus over the past week: how to help?

Over the weekend, students in the American Red Cross Cal Club learned that the Cal Corps Public Service Center was planning a parallel effort to raise relief funds, with bottled water as a giveaway. The two groups decided to join forces and on Monday morning set up shop on Sproul Plaza with cases of water (the liquid gold of fire suppression), a donation box, handmade signs, and a slew of volunteers signed up to staff the booth each day throughout the week. Within 15 minutes they’d given away a case of water (donated by Cal Dining) and accepted a stack of contributions.
“We’ve seen so many disasters on TV,” says sophomore Melissa Hong, who in addition to her membership in the Red Cross Club coordinates a De-Cal class on the international relief organization. “Students are really passionate about helping.”

Inside Sproul, meanwhile, the Office of Student Life (OSL) has been seeking out and providing support to students affected by the disaster. When the news first broke, staffers contacted those with home addresses in the Ventura, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and San Diego county fire zones. In response to that effort, an ad in the Daily Californian, and a message to the campus community from Chancellor Berdahl, the office has been in contact with many touched by the disaster — among them one young woman whose family home burned in the fire, another student whose mother’s best friend was killed, and others upset by news of evacuations and devastation.

“Even if students themselves are not directly affected,” says Dean of Students Karen Kenney, “they’re shook up to see their community destroyed.”

Financial aid, counseling, academic accommodations, and emergency travel assistance are among the services being offered. Staff are trying, as well, to anticipate issues that may arise for students as the semester goes on.

“A lot of times students don’t know what they’ll need,” Kenney notes. In the first 72 hours, financial assistance and academic accommodation may top their list. “But two to four weeks out,” she says, they often need counseling or other forms of aid.

In the wake of the fires, for instance, some may have no home to go back to for the holidays. With support from the chancellor, OSL is planning a Thanksgiving meal for those students — where all the fixings, and a chance to share experiences and get support, will be in ample supply.