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Beyond the Infinite

Beyond the Infinite, Fall 2013
Volume 8

Disaster Relief

New Orleans relief

Justin Lee '07 traveled to New Orleans in 2006 with fellow MIT students to work on Katrina recovery projects.

When disaster strikes communities around the nation and the world, the MIT community responds with donations and action. The PKG Center is a central, natural starting point in the immediate aftermath of disaster for students seeking ways to help communities in need. Many students engaging in public service work through the PKG Center have focused their work in disaster relief.

September 11 attacks

After our nation suffered an unthinkable and devastating attack in 2001, members of the MIT community sought ways to respond.

Realizing how many people on campus wanted to do something to help, the PKG Center stepped forward to help MIT achieve a thoughtful and concerted impact. The PKG Center coordinated philanthropic efforts around the Institute, running a September 11 Disaster Relief Fund Drive in collaboration with the Undergraduate Association and the Graduate Student Council. The PKG Center's efforts in the aftermath of September 11 illustrate the emerging central role that the PKG Center would come to play in public service on the MIT campus.

New Orleans

Similarly, the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 compelled many MIT students to offer their assistance. This assistance again included philanthropy – a fundraising drive raised over $40,000 – but the PKG Center also provided grants, fellowships, and advice to MIT students who wanted to take action.

In just over a year, the PKG Center provided grants and fellowships and offered advice and logistical support to MIT students who wanted to take action. More than 100 MIT students ultimately traveled to the Gulf Coast to help afflicted communities. Much of students' initial work included cleanup and home reconstruction to help victims return to some sense of normalcy. As students kept returning to serve in New Orleans and other communities, it soon became clear that this great work was only the beginning.

Take Jeff Schwartz MCP '08 as an example. In January 2007 Jeff traveled with other students in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning to work in New Orleans' Broadmoor neighborhood, which suffered extensive damage from Katrina. Jeff worked with the Broadmoor Community Development Corporation to write a business plan to enable the redevelopment of a key building in the neighborhood.

Armed with an MIT education rooted in public service, Jeff returned to the Broadmoor neighborhood after graduating to found Broad Community Connections (BCC), a nonprofit community development organization dedicated to revitalizing the Broad Street commercial corridor. MIT's public service relationship with New Orleans continues as the PKG Center has supported several MIT students to work with BCC on neighborhood development projects.

"The PKG Center played a key role in enabling me to engage in this work," says Schwartz. "Not only did the PKG Center support my work in New Orleans during graduate school, the PKG Center also supported the work of dozens of students to come to New Orleans and do remarkable, impactful work. The PKG Center has generally been a champion of student work in New Orleans and has been a crucial partner and facilitator in making that happen."

The unpredictable nature of disasters can lead to confusion and disarray, hampering assistance efforts. Morgan O'Neill, a PhD student in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, and her sister Caitria learned that firsthand after a tornado devastated their hometown of Monson, Mass., in June 2011.

As the Monson community received an outpouring of donations and volunteers ready to help in the days after the disaster, Morgan and Caitria realized that there was no organized system to match the outpouring of support with the community's actual needs.

As a result, the sisters began, an easy-to-use online toolkit for communities to prepare and recover from disaster. Through the platform, communities have tools to manage volunteers, donations, and other crucial information. The PKG Center provided Morgan and Caitria with a grant to help pilot this concept.

"The PKG Center was instrumental in our early development," says Caitria. "We were pre-software, pre-proof, and pre-team, but the PKG Center encouraged us to build our rough prototype and travel to two disaster areas to test our concept."

After some further honing, entered the IDEAS Global Challenge competition and won one of the $10,000 grand prizes in 2012. The team would go on to secure additional funding, including $340,000 from the Knight Foundation's News Challenge on Networks and $50,000 from the MassChallenge Accelerator.

The team, which includes Morgan; Caitria; Chris Kuryak SM '12; and Alvin Liang '05, SM '08 has active pages for over 20 communities in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Australia.

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