Hurricane Irma slammed into the U.S. Virgin Islands just as Cyana Francis-Berkitt ’19, a native of St. Thomas, was starting classes for the semester.
Though her own family’s home was left mostly intact, enduring just some flooding and a few broken windows, she heard of friends’ houses that had roofs blown off or walls caved in. Power and phone service was down in much of the area. In the end, the Category 5 storm caused four deaths and billions of dollars in damage on St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix, and Water Island.
But news reports focused on impacts in Florida, and few people on the mainland seemed to realize it, Francis-Berkitt said.
“There weren’t many people donating supplies to the Virgin Islands and there were a lot of people in need,” she said. “I just wasn’t happy with the attention, or lack thereof, [USVI] was getting and I wanted to sort of help [those] who had lost, if not everything, then just about everything.”
Francis-Berkitt is spearheading a food and supply drive on campus to collect toiletries, nonperishable food, and other necessities and send them to her fellow islanders, who, two weeks after Irma, were struck by Hurricane Maria, another Category 5 storm.
She fired off emails to every administrator at Emerson College, including President Lee Pelton, asking for help in organizing a drive for the Virgin Islands. (Pelton wrote back to ask if anyone was helping her, which she said she appreciated.)
Eventually, she landed at the Office of Student Success, which is assisting with coordinating boxes and getting the word out about the drive.
Francis-Berkitt already had connections with nonprofits on the islands, including the Girls on the Go, Inc., a mentorship and social services organization; the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, which Francis-Berkitt had worked with in the past; and the United Way, where her mother has connections.
“Knowing that the connections there were so strong, we felt really confident that this would be a good thing for us to put time and energy into,” said Emily Solomon ’17, Student Success Coordinator.
Boxes are, or will soon be, in: Piano Row, in the second-floor Student Success office and in the front lobby of the Max Mutchnick Campus Center in Piano Row; the Walker Building, on the tenth floor; at the Iwasaki Library; and Student Affairs on the fourth floor. Solomon said they’re also working with resident assistants to get boxes into all the residence halls, and will try to send some to administrative offices, including the 13th floor of Park Plaza.
The office is also coordinating with students who are concurrently running a drive to collect menstrual products.
Items that are most needed right now, in addition to sanitary napkins and tampons, include tarps, food, first aid kits, bug spray, and battery-powered fans. For more information, visit the office’s Facebook page.
Francis-Berkitt said the drive is expected to last at least a month, which will also give delivery agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, and FedEx time to get up to capacity.
She said many Americans may not know much about the U.S. territories, and if they do, they’re probably more familiar with Puerto Rico, which is much larger than the Virgin Islands.
But what Francis-Berkitt wants Emerson to know is how the islands came together after the disaster struck. Current and former residents of the island banded together on social media to help one another out. People helped look for lost family members, whether they knew the family or not, and did what they could to bring relief to each other, she said.
“That display of a sense of community strongly resembled what happens at Emerson,” Francis-Berkitt said. “With Emerson being such a community-centric [college], this school would be perfect to host such a drive.”
For more information, visit the Office of Student Success Facebook page.