Staff, Faculty Members, Along with International Students and Families, Support Essential Workers through Fundraising Effort

When a group of local Chinese American community members, including University faculty and staff, heard about the devastating impact of COVID-19 on China’s people and its health care system earlier this year, they recognized what could happen in the United States.

And, as the first cases of the illness were reported in the country, they took action to help.

Through social media and community connections, the community members and many international students at the University and their families took part in an effort that raised $40,000 and gathered personal protective equipment donations to supply Syracuse-area health care facilities, government agencies, businesses and nonprofit organizations with needed items for essential workers.

In January, international students at the University had seen the troubling news from China and initially launched a fundraiser to help supply medical supplies to the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, which was the center of the coronavirus outbreak.

“The international students from China paid so much attention to what was going on and how damaging the pandemic was. They started to think of ways to help, so they had a ‘A Hand for Wuhan’ fundraiser,” says Wei Gao, associate director of operations and outreach for the Center for International Services. “It was so successful—$53,000 was raised.”

Local community members also watched what was happening closely.

“Social media was flooded with discussions about the whole situation back in China, and then a few months later, the wave turned and the U.S. started getting hit hard,” says Zunli Lu, associate professor of Earth sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We observed very closely what happened in China and how the health care system was heavily affected and the horrific things that could happen, so some local community members thought we could really do something about it here.”

A core group of 11 community members, including Gao and Lu, set up a GoFundMe page and began making calls and circulating notices on social media about helping local health care professionals and organizations with needed supplies.

“We looked everywhere to find medical supplies. The core group found a lot of resources through personal connections and online,” Gao says.

The supplies were verified to make sure of their sourcing, and an Upstate University Hospital staff member assisted in ensuring the quality.

Once the word spread that this local effort was taking place, international students and their parents were also eager to be involved.

“We didn’t want the tragic story in China with the impact on doctors and nurses who took care of the sick to happen here,” Gao says. “We wanted to work ahead of time to find the resources and equipment to supply doctors and nurses who may need them, or even community people who are working as essential workers.”

Along with the core group of volunteers, another 34 volunteers assisted with receiving and distributing supplies that had to be carefully logged.

Half of the funding was raised through a GoFundMe social media campaign, including donations from University faculty and staff; the other half was raised from parents of Syracuse University international students in Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan.

Through the group’s fundraising efforts and the personal protective equipment sent from families of students in China, more than 45,000 pieces of personal protective equipment—including surgical masks and gowns, gloves and face masks—were donated to local organizations. Over 100 packages from families of international students were shipped by air freight from China to Syracuse. On one day in May, they received a shipment of 33 boxes containing thousands of isolation gowns donated by Beijing parents who raised funds together. In addition, parents from all over China held two big fundraising efforts. The first was to acquire and donate PPE; the second raised more than $23,000 for the Syracuse COVID-19 Response Fund.

The group was also able to obtain the specialized N95 respirators, specifically for medical professionals working with patients—a critical item that had been in short supply.

Supplies were donated to some 40 Central New York organizations, including Upstate University Hospital, Crouse Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center, Tops Supermarket, the Syracuse Community Health Center, Meals on Wheels, the Fayetteville-Manlius School District and the Syracuse Police Department. The organizations have responded with “thank you” notes and letters, appreciative of the resources and the work of the community members, students and families who made it happen.

Some of the funding was also used to provide kits—which included isolation gowns, goggles and gloves—for international students traveling home on long flights.

“We take care of our international students—they consider Syracuse and the University as their second homes,” Lu says. “They have a lot of emotional attachment to the University. When their second home needs something, they are more than happy to contribute.”

Gao was proud of the students and the work they did to raise funds for Wuhan and then asking their families in China to help when Syracuse was in need.

“It’s touching to see, even in this difficult time, how they donated money to their community in Syracuse,” Gao says. “We have several key families of international students who took the lead in this and who sacrificed their time and money and energy to help out Syracuse University and the local community. They are a great resource for the University and a great resource for the community during this pandemic.”

Lu agrees: “I am most proud of how the international students contributed wholeheartedly to the effort and the community.”

College students may appear to be isolated from the community, but they shop at local restaurants and grocery stores and participate in the community. “Any effort like this can bring people together, instead of dividing people,” Gao says. “What we can say, using this as an example, is that we are truly in this together. If one part of us hurts, the other part will hurt as well.”

Gao also points to this as a learning experience for students. “Many international students might not know how local grassroots efforts work to make change,” Gao says. “This is action. Students think if they need something, they can work something out. They can do something, and we can find a solution together, even if they feel afraid or isolated. This is an opportunity to work together, and we can all make something beautiful and better than before.”