U.Va. Student Joey Katona Raising Money for a Good Cause

Feb. 16, 2007 -- Joey Katona insists that he hates asking people for money. So why does the first-year University of Virginia student spend so much time writing fund-raising letters and conducting a kind of one-man telethon?

He found a cause he couldn't resist — helping his friend Omar Dreidi to to college in the United States.

"As much as I dislike raising money, I love doing it for Omar," Katona says.

In the summer of 2004, Katona and Dreidi met at the Seeds of Peace summer retreat in Maine. Seeds of Peace helps teenagers from regions of conflict around the world learn the skills of making peace.

Katona, who is Jewish, is from Los Angeles; Dreidi is a Palestinian Arab from Ramallah. Although they were little more than acquaintances during the first summer in Maine, the two became fast friends when they returned to a second Seeds of Peace program the following summer.

Katona and his family visited Dreidi's family in April 2006. At that point, Katona had already been accepted by U.Va. Dreidi hoped to attend college in the U.S. but wasn't sure where or how.

"Right after I got back from visiting Omar, he learned that he had been accepted to Earlham College and that he had been given a very generous merit scholarship," says Katona. "But even with the financial aid package from Earlham and another scholarship from Seeds of Peace, Omar and his family were going to need to come up with slightly more than $10,000. He told me that he didn't see any way for them to do that."

Dreidi never asked Katona for help. He didn't need to.

"It's not right that just because I was born into a situation that favored me economically that I should have the opportunity to make something of my life, and he shouldn't," says Katona, who is studying Arabic and plans to focus on finding peaceful solutions in the Middle East.

"The dream is that one day Omar and I will work together on these issues," he adds.

To raise the money Dreidi needed to attend Earlham for his first year, Katona wrote and talked with family members and friends and friends of friends.

Katona wound up getting nine gifts ranging from $250 to $2,809. That $809 was significant because the precise total Dreidi needed was $10,809.

The people he contacted knew very clearly what the money would do.

"It isn't like asking someone to give money on behalf of, say, Darfur where the funds might go to building wells or helping refugees, but you may not know when you give it exactly where it will end up," Katona says. "In this case, a kid who wants to go to college couldn't without this money.

"I didn't want to make the people I asked feel guilty. I did want them to think what would happen if we could raise the money: Omar's life would change and that, in turn, has the promise of changing other lives in the future."

Katona says that officials at Earlham have been extremely helpful in extending deadlines and in working with him and Dreidi.

Last month Kevin Burke, director of media relations at Earlham, wrote a story about the relationship and the fund-raising campaign and posted it on the college's Web site. The story is also on the Seeds of Peace Web site. As a result, Katona has received inquiries from individuals, many of them Earlham alumni, who want to help.

Katona realized when he got into this fund-raising business last spring that it would be a four-year commitment.

"Just as I'm having a great experience here in my first year at U.Va., I know that Omar is taking advantage of everything that Earlham has to offer him — he played on the soccer team there, for instance, and I'm sure has added to the life of the campus."

For his part, Dreidi describes Katona as having a "big heart."

In the interview that appeared on Earlham's Web site, Dreidi said: "What he has done for me is something unique. He has opened my eyes to the world. I am very proud to be Joey's friend and I wish that I could do something to help him. Some day I will."

For information on the Omar Driedi Fund, email josephkatona@gmail.com or call 310/613-6268.