Student's initiative pervades through Haiti earthquake


Diesa Seidel was walking along a deserted dirt road on Jan. 12 just 12 miles north of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti when she felt the earth rumble in what she thought was just a normal earthquake.

But Seidel had no idea the rumble would result in a mass destructive earthquake hitting 7.0 on the Richter scale.

"I knew it was an earthquake right away. It wasn't like I was confused about what was going on — the earth literally went shaking," she said. "It was kind of like the twilight zone. Once the earthquake happened, I realized this really a massive destruction — I had no idea how much of the chaos it had cost."

Seidel, a graduate student at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers-Newark, arrived in Haiti on Jan. 6 to work in "Girls Reform through Artistic Creative Empowerment" at The Haitian Academy school as part of her self-run organization, United Initiatives for Peace.

Seidel was finishing up a G.R.A.C.E. session with a group of young girls at the school when she experienced the earthquake.

She describes the place she was in as one of the safest areas to be on the island, which happened to be one of the least impacted in Haiti that day, despite being just 400 meters from the ocean.

"I was at a very safe location, I was outdoors," Seidel said. "Reflecting on it now, it was probably the safest place possible."

Seidel said she did not imagine coming to Haiti to help people recover from one of the biggest earthquakes in a long time, but she was more than prepared as she transformed the school into a medical center to aid victims.

"During the next week, I just tried to make myself as useful as possible by helping out at different hospitals in Port-Au-Prince, she said. "On site at The Haitian Academy, there was a small medical center that we were cleaning up so we can use for patients."

While her experience working internationally prepared her to help anyone at that moment, Seidel said she was not prepared to witness such an experience.

"I've had a lot of experience traveling to different impoverished countries and communities, so I started adapting to help out. That wasn't a major adjustment for me," she said. "It was more witnessing the devastation and the loss that Haiti had experienced in such a short time."

Seidel started United Initiatives in April 2008 to promote higher education and social reform and offer creative, recreational opportunities while promoting women empowerment worldwide.

Since its launch, Seidel has implement 21 G.R.A.C.E. programs in 15 different countries ranging from countries in Africa to Central and South America, to promote women empowerment.

"Just through partnerships and networking with people, I was able to facilitate 21 great programs," she said.

Aside from the G.R.A.C.E. program, other initiatives include "You got Schooled," a 3-on-3 basketball tournament geared toward young girls from the greater Newark area to win college scholarships and "Court Quest," a program to build basketball courts in impoverished communities worldwide.

Through the "You got Schooled" program, 39 girls from Newark have been awarded a total of more than $20,000 in college scholarship funds, Seidel said. The program is in its third year and this summer will conduct its next tournament.

In partnership with Community Solutions for Africa's Development, Seidel started "Court Quest" in Bukoba, Tanzania, in March 2009, building the first basketball court that allows the more than 1,000 youth in the community a place to play.

"In America, we have all of these great programs and facilities … where kids can go and do positive things," she said. "But in many impoverished countries, these resources that we take for granted don't even exist."

While on her trips, Seidel travels with 100 pounds of supplies each time as part of her "Operation Cooperation" initiative, which provides school supplies, medical supplies and recreational supplies for countries in need.

Ana Cobiella-Olson, director for the board of directors at United Initiatives, has worked with Seidel for about six years. She has partnered with her on a few projects internationally and in Newark.

"Throughout the years, Diesa's involvement, prompted her to create her own organization," Olson said. "She is very passionate about it. She is an incredibly committed person who has the ambition to serve people not just in her own back yard but [internationally]."

While Seidel works primarily solo on her initiative with the help of two friends and her board of directors, including Olson, she hopes to eventually involve more volunteers and apply for different grants to support her program.

"My next step is through grant money, to get a small office space and look for interns … and work with them to facilitate new programs because realistically, I'm not going to be traveling my whole life nonstop," she said. "I'd like to pass the baton and take more of an administrative side."


Ariel Nagi

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