Whenever Rackham senior Marcia Barron opened a newspaper over the last two months, she was haunted by the stories of people living in areas affected by the South Asian tsunami. Although she donated money, she still felt helpless and that she was not doing enough. Barron wanted to go a step beyond donating — she wanted to help first-hand in the relief effort.
Barron will be able to help through the Amma Center in Michigan, an international organization named after and inspired by the teachings of a humanitarian widely recognized for her charitable works in hospices, hospitals and orphanages. The center plans to undertake a one million dollar effort to rebuild 500 houses in tsunami-affected areas.
This will be in conjunction with the $32 million pledged by the Amma Center in Kerala, a state of India that was hit by the tsunami, said Chad Kymal, president of the Amma Center in Ann Arbor. He said this is the single largest private donation for tsunami relief in the world.
Many volunteers from the Amma Center in Michigan, including Kymal and his family, plan to travel to India for six weeks this summer to build houses.
Each $2,000 home will take 10 days to build and will include some modern amenities such as septic facilities and running water, Kymal said.
Kymal said a date for the trip has not been set because the center is awaiting clearance on building plans from the government, but it expects to know more by the end of March. He said the major rebuilding effort will most likely continue into next year.
Kymal also said he wants to open this opportunity to University students who are not affiliated with the Amma Center. Rackham senior Erin Schwartz and Barron are helping Kymal reach his goal of gathering 50 student participants from the University by recruiting from Asian and community-service organizations on campus.
Schwartz said that students are a great resource to the project and in turn will benefit from a unique experience.
“There are lots of capable people in the University that care about rebuilding a life for an entire family, that are also devotees of Amma and that just have this desire in their heart to help the people of tsunami-affected areas … The people that go will have a tremendous experience beyond building a house,” Schwartz said.
Kymal said the six-week stay is not mandatory and that anyone willing to pledge his time is invited.
The rebuilding effort will focus on two devastated villages Nagaptinam and Allapad in India, Kymal said.
The village of Nagaptinam is about five hours away from the Amrita University, said Kymal. He added that students of Amrita helped in Nagaptinam by distributing food and medical care and erecting temporary shelters.
University students will have the opportunity to work alongside Indian students as well as Japanese students who have been helping to build houses in India since the earthquake in Gujarat, Kymal said.
“I’m very excited to meet other students that are partaking this, because we are all so passionate about this cause,” Barron said.
Kymal said they will also be helping to reconstruct the village of Allapad because of its drastic socioeconomic upheaval following the tsunami — many of the people went from lower-middle class backgrounds to absolutely nothing in less than an hour.
“Even many of the fishermen had college educations … It is easy to empathize with (the people of Allapad), because many of them are coming from the same background (as University students),” Kymal said.
In both communities, the Indian government has provided temporary housing in the forms of tents and sheds where people live in a communal fashion, Kymal said. The government has also distributed food and medical supplies.
“I think they’ve done a superb job,” he said “In the U.S., we were worried about people starving, having nowhere to live and an outbreak of diseases. The Indian government has done an excellent job for the vastness of what has happened. When you go into these places, it’s like the twilight zone. Right now everything is rubble, and bulldozers are trying to get rid of it.”
Kymal said that even with this government aid, it will be difficult for the area to recover without any type of social security or unemployment wages.
To fill this void, Kymal said, the center also wants to raise money for nets and boats so that the citizens of these devastated areas can rebuild their livelihoods. One boat is about $2,000 dollars and can be shared by five families, while a series of nets for different sizes of fishes would be $1,000, Kymal said.
To decide how the center’s funds should be allocated between these pressing needs and the houses, Kymal will return to India in three to four months.
“In my own opinion, what we are doing is a small gesture in the big picture,” he said. “But it is all we can do. In my estimation, after I returned I realized that there is so much that needs to be done. Here at Michigan, we are doing what we can to help these two villages. I think we can directly impact thousands of people and make a difference in their lives.”