January 28, 2011

2011 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Student organizes relief effort to help Haitians after earthquake

By Mary Ann Wyand

Ella GebkeAfter a massive earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010, St. Thomas Aquinas School second-grader Ella Gebke of Indianapolis knew that she had to do something to help suffering people in Haiti.

The devastating 7.0-magnitude quake flattened much of Haiti’s capital city in seconds, crushing buildings with people trapped inside. It killed approximately 230,000 people, injured more than 200,000 Haitians, and left 1.5 million men, women and children homeless.

Somehow, Ella thought, she would help the impoverished Haitian people living in overcrowded tent cities after the disaster.

Donating money for emergency medical care, food and water would certainly help injured and displaced people, she decided, as would collecting aspirin, Tylenol, Band-Aids and other first-aid supplies for them.

So Ella, who is now a third-grader, organized a school campaign and invited all the students to bring donations for St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Haiti Committee members to send to people in desperate need of help in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

“At first, when the earthquake had just happened,” Ella recalled, “I came to school with some money to give to them because I thought there was a project already going on. But since there wasn’t yet, my teacher [Sarah Jose] asked me if I wanted to start one.”

With help from her classmates, Ella prepared announcements about the relief effort, which were read over the school intercom each day.

Then, for several weeks, she came to school early every morning to sit by the door with a cardboard box for donations.

Every student who contributed money or first-aid supplies received a raffle ticket and was eligible for a prize drawing for one of 15 gift certificates given by area merchants.

“It was fun,” Ella said, to see the students’ donations fill her large box.

“It was nice to be able to sit out there every morning and wait for donations to come in,” she said. “I just felt really good that I had the opportunity to help the people of Haiti. I pray for them every night.”

The Indianapolis North Deanery school’s earthquake relief project raised $85 as well as a large bag of medicines and first-aid supplies.

“I thought [second-grader] Matthew Welch did a very good job,” Ella said, “because he donated some Tylenol every single day of the drive.”

St. Thomas Aquinas School principal Jerry Flynn said Ella’s project brought the students, parents and other

parishioners together in a united effort to help the Haitian people.

“Ella was very concerned about the earthquake, and thought she could do a little more so this second-grader organized the campaign,” Flynn recalled. “She came to my office and asked for permission, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ It was very well-planned, and our students responded enthusiastically. It’s wonderful for the kids to help others. They realize that not everybody has it as good as they do.”

St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner Joseph Zelenka, who helped organize the parish Haiti Committee in 1988, often visits the school to talk with the students about the mission project with Haitians at St. Jean Marie Parish in Belle Riviere.

“When Joe has visitors from the Haiti mission,” Flynn said, “he brings them to school to visit the classes so the kids can learn about the Haitians, how they live, and how appreciative they are for our friendship and help. It’s been a very good partnership. He also makes slide shows so the kids can see photos from his trips there.”

Ella’s school campaign empowered the students, he said, and taught them valuable life lessons.

“Everybody wants to help Haiti,” Flynn explained. “Our students pray for the people all the time. In the mornings, we say prayers [over the intercom] and I can’t remember a day when there wasn’t a prayer intention for Haiti. It’s been good for the parish and school to come together on a common cause like Haiti.” †

(Related story: Our Lady of the Greenwood students help children in Haiti)

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