Quake mobilizes D.C. area to help Haiti

Nicholas Odhiambo works with Crisis Camp volunteers to collaborate on technology to help with Haiti's relief efforts.
Nicholas Odhiambo works with Crisis Camp volunteers to collaborate on technology to help with Haiti's relief efforts. (Dayna Smith/the Washington Post)
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By Akeya Dickson
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Residents created online groups, gathered en masse in borrowed meeting spaces and spearheaded clothing and food drives within hours of the earthquake that devastated Haiti last week.

"We have received over 1,200 calls today; our phone system can't handle it," Stephanie C. Rosenberg, counselor of cultural affairs at the Haitian Embassy, told people looking to help Jan. 13 after a candlelight vigil.

A couple hours earlier, about 60 Howard University students, D.C. residents and University of Maryland students murmured names of family members and friends in Haiti during a prayer that opened a meeting by the Haitian Student Association. The collective discussed issues such as setting aside aid for Haitian students who have yet to be validated and registered for classes, hosting a telethon and going to Haiti to help.

Roberte Exantus, president of the association and a 20-year-old junior, had been awake for the previous 24 hours fielding student requests and trying to get in touch with her parents and relatives in Haiti, none of whom she'd been able to reach.

"You have to be strong because a lot of phone lines are cut down. There are many aftershocks, so encourage your family members to stay out of their houses as much as they can," she told the group. "We're going to need [your] support for the next couple months; we made it through the day today because of a lot of you guys."

Sure people sent text messages to have donations charged to their cellphone bill. But for some, that wasn't enough.

Amanda Brinton, 23, a community outreach coordinator for the D.C. chapter of the Sierra Club, took a taxi halfway to the Haitian Embassy on Sunday with her sister, Jessica, to deliver clothes, diapers and other items for survival kits. They eventually had to walk the rest of the way, along with several others, because traffic was backed up on Massachusetts Avenue NW with people trying to reach the embassy with donations.

"I like to contribute to things like this because I know it's going to people in Haiti, instead of donating money that can go to overhead costs," said Brinton, of Northwest Washington.

The event was organized by the embassy and the Greater Washington Haiti Relief Committee, which was founded in 2008 in the wake of hurricanes that struck there that year. The group reconvened in hours to assist with relief efforts, said Lesley Samedy, 52, an engineer who is from Haiti.

"The turnout was surprising. We didn't expect it or this traffic. We're overwhelmed and so appreciative of the donations," said Samedy, an adviser with the committee.

Although people have been asked to give money to the larger charities, Samedy said they couldn't turn away other kinds of donations.

"We ask for money, but people bring things; we can't say no," he said while directing foot traffic and answering questions at the embassy's front door. "People are so dedicated, and they want to bring stuff. So we'll store this until we get clearance to ship it to Haiti."

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