MU students raise funds for Japan relief

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 | 9:55 p.m. CDT; updated 12:07 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 23, 2011

COLUMBIA — Just after midnight on a Thursday, MU senior Sarah Almahmoud was on Twitter when she started seeing reports of the earthquake in Japan.

Her boyfriend, who is from Japan and whose family is there, had already gone to sleep, but she woke him with the news. At first, he brushed it off — the 29-year-old had gone through earthquake drills in Japan as a child and assumed the quake would not be a big deal. As Almahmoud told him more about it, though, he began to realize how bad it was.

As the day went on, they watched the situation develop through online media, and Almahmoud felt a desire to help.

“I was like, I can’t just sit there and watch the news online without doing anything,” Almahmoud said.

So she sprang into action.

She searched the Internet for ways to help and posted links to fundraising sites online. Eventually she called her friend Kiho Ogura, a junior and president of MU’s Japanese Student Association, and said they should try to raise money.

On Wednesday, Almahmoud created a Facebook group called “Pray for Japan (Mizzou).” By Tuesday, it had grown to 183 members.

In the past week, “Pray for Japan” has been a common refrain on the Internet. There are countless “Pray For Japan” Facebook pages, one with 27,271 fans and counting, and people around the world are including the phrase in their statuses, profile pictures and more.

"Pray for Japan (Mizzou)" is just one piece of the international effort to send aid to Japan, and one of the many ways members of the Columbia community have been working to help out.

At a Japanese Student Association meeting days after the earthquake, after members made sure their families in Japan were safe, they started talking about finding ways to send help.

Ogura and Almahmoud had already discussed creating and selling T-shirts, so when Ogura brought up the idea to the group, members said they would help out, Ogura said.

Almahmoud and Ogura are organizing the fundraising, but Almahmoud called it a collective effort, saying the association helped sell shirts at MU’s International Night on Friday and will help at future events as well.

On the recommendation of several students and a politician near Tokyo whom Ogura had contacted, the group decided to send the money to the Japanese Red Cross, one of Japan’s largest nonprofit organizations, Almahmoud said.

Almahmoud, a strategic communications student, had seen logos designed in connection to the Japanese disaster and thought they were morbid. She wanted something more empowering and positive, so she decided to design her own image to use for the Facebook group and on the T-shirts.

Three lines of black text form a square reading “PRAY FOR JAPAN.” The “O” is replaced by the red circle of the Japanese flag, with a white silhouette of the island nation in the middle.

Almahmoud put her designs on display, and “it just kind of started rolling,” she said.

When the group decided to try to sell shirts at International Night, Almahmoud said they expected to make a few hundred dollars.

Their grand total for the night: $1,308.48.

“It was absolutely mind-blowing,” Almahmoud said.

They had not expected to sell so many shirts at International Night, a free event where people might not have money on them. Some of those who didn’t buy shirts gave them contact information and said they wanted to help, Almahmoud said, making the night an larger success.

“I just felt really blessed to be in a community where people really help each other,” she said.

The money continues to come in; Almahmoud said she receives new orders every day. The shirts have spread beyond MU, as well. Almahmoud said she has a friend at Columbia College who wants to order shirts, too, and student association members want to sell to friends and family.

“The more money we raise, the more money we can send to Japan, the more we can help,” Almahmoud said. “That’s ultimately the purpose.”

Ogura hasn’t yet been able to tell her parents, who are back in Japan, about her fundraising efforts. She had told some friends in the country, though, and “they were really, really excited about it, too,” she said.

Almahmoud and Ogura haven’t organized their efforts much yet, taking a go-with-the-flow approach for now, but Almahmoud said they will develop more strategic plans over spring break.

Their first order of 150 shirts should be ready Friday, she said, and they will sell whatever is left over after individual orders are filled. They plan to keep sales going through the end of the semester, and have already identified a few more events where they plan to sell.

Ogura said she plans to keep trying to raise money, especially after the success of what they have done so far. “I feel like I have to keep doing this,” she said.

Almahmoud said her next fundraising goal is $2,500. If they reach that, she’ll hope for $5,000. Beyond that? She’s open to raising her goal amount.

“I like to think big,” she said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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