February 25, 2010 — Members of several University of Virginia Law School student organizations have joined together as "Law Hoos for Haiti" and are in the midst of a multi-faceted campaign to aid the earthquake-ravaged country.
Since returning from winter break, the group has been selling T-shirts and engaging in other fundraising efforts, with the goal of raising $12,000 by March 1.
"We decided we were not just going to have individual responses to this tragedy, but we wanted to have a U.Va. Law response, and have everybody work together," said outgoing Student Bar Association president Dan Rosenthal.
Students are also investigating potential pro bono opportunities and exploring a proposed symposium at the end of the semester to see what lessons can be taken from both the disaster and the international response.
First-year law student Amber Williams, who was among the speakers at a vigil on Tuesday, spent more than 10 years of her childhood living in Port-au-Prince. Her parents are missionaries there – her father is a pilot with Mission Aviation Fellowship and her mother and brother teach at Quisqueya Christian School – and she was in Haiti when the earthquake struck Jan. 12.
In the immediate aftermath, she and her family didn't understand the magnitude of the destruction, Williams said.
"In Haiti, you have your house and your business, and you also have a perimeter wall. Immediately after, we saw some perimeter walls fall, but didn't see any buildings fall," she said.
The next day, Williams and her brother took a walk on Delmas, a main road through Port-au-Prince, and realized the overwhelming extent of the damage.
"There were thousands of people in the streets. Buildings had collapsed," she said. "We saw one lady who was clearly in shock and was bleeding, but was just sitting on the side of the road on a piece of cardboard. There was another lady that was lying down on a door that people were using as a gurney to take her somewhere, I don't know where, some sort of clinic. But most of the clinics and the hospitals had collapsed as well."
Williams was able to leave on Jan. 15, but said she felt conflicted about her departure.
"I didn't want to be a drain on the resources, but at the same time it was really hard to leave my adopted country in such an hour of need," she said.
Hearing Williams' story helped put a human face on the tragedy, Rosenthal said. Leaders from different student groups were in contact via e-mail over winter break, and efforts to organize a school-wide response were well under way when the semester began, he said.
In addition to selling T-shirts, Hoos for Haiti also organized an in-class fundraising effort, with some faculty members agreeing to match funds raised in their classes.
"We had 20 professors and 24 classes agree to match anywhere between $50 and $500 of donations received from their students," said third-year law student Jennifer Long.
In addition, students were able to contribute while purchasing tickets for the annual Barristers Ball and at the actual event, and a section-by-section fundraising competition for first-year students is under way this week. There will also be a raffle for two parking spots in the lot behind the Law School.
Students have raised about $9,000 so far, Rosenthal said. The proceeds will go to Partners in Health, a nonprofit that has been operating in Haiti for about 25 years, according to third-year law student Stephen Wendell.
"Our main concern was finding an organization that had established roots in Haiti, and not just one that was going to come in and come out," Wendell said. "I think to best utilize the money you need to know the country's past and where they're going to go in the future."
Direct contributions can be made online at the Law Hoos for Haiti Web site, and donors will receive an automated reply via e-mail for tax purposes, Rosenthal said. The organization also has a Facebook group.
"We are talking about finding speakers to come in and do a symposium toward the end of the semester to focus on moving on, and how we can learn from the tragedy, and try to get the bigger picture about recovering from an event like this," said second-year law student Melanie Stuart.
Student pro bono opportunities should develop in coming weeks as organizations on the ground in Haiti get a clearer idea of exactly what sort of legal help law students can provide, Rosenthal said. Other fundraising efforts to raise money directly for the school Williams attended may also be organized off-Grounds, said third-year law student Doug Bouton.
"We're in this for the long haul," Rosenthal said. "We made a point from the get-go to make this be U.Va. Law speaking with a single voice. That was critical to us, and I think speaks volumes about our community at the Law School."