ONTARIO — Erin Schultz has never been to the Darfur region of Sudan. The African nation is hundreds of miles from her home in Wayne County, but that hasn’t stopped her from reaching out to ease the suffering of the region’s people.
After learning that Darfur is currently in the throes of a crisis so violent that many are classifying it as genocide, 15-year-old Erin created a short movie about the crisis and e-mailed it to everyone she knows. She’d only intended to raise awareness about the problem, but as of April 19 she’d also raised approximately $2,000 for relief efforts in Darfur.
Erin’s efforts have impressed teens and adults alike, including the members of the Ontario Town Board, who praised Erin at their March meeting. Even Erin herself said she was a little surprised by the way she dove into the project and its unexpected success.
Last year at this time, Erin had barely even heard of Darfur. She was active in the Reality youth group at her parish, St. Mary of the Lake in Ontario, and had volunteered at Foodlink a few times, but she’d never been overly involved in activist efforts. She did, however, regularly read Newsweek and Time, and it was while perusing a December issue of the latter magazine that she first learned about the crisis in Darfur.
In Darfur there are several nomadic outlaw militias collectively known as the Janjaweed, which means “devil on horseback,” Erin said. The Janjaweed are believed to be responsible for displacing, raping or murdering millions of subsistence farmers as well as members of tribes that have rebelled against the Sudanese government, according to human-rights organizations.
Millions of displaced people now live in camps with very little access to food and water, Erin said. The most disconcerting thing about this whole situation is the fact that the Janjaweed have been terrorizing people for several years with little or no interference from the outside world.
“I found it horrible how almost nobody knew about it,” she said.
After stumbling upon some disturbing photographs of the crisis’ victims in the pages of Time, Erin felt compelled to learn more about the issue. She looked up more newsmagazine articles about the Darfur crisis and sought out Web sites devoted to raising awareness of the crisis and the need for intervention and humanitarian aid.
Once Erin had armed herself with information, she took things one step further. Using a computer program called Movie Maker, she put together a five-minute movie that incorporates photos from Darfur, statistics about the number of people killed, injured and displaced, and a poem written by a Sudanese man who fled the country on foot when he was a teen.
“First I brought it to show the Reality group here, and I e-mailed it to everyone in my contacts list and I told them to forward it to people,” Erin said.
People told Erin the movie was very powerful, and she said they did as she’d asked and passed it along to others. Carol May, youth minister at St. Mary of the Lake, said she e-mailed the movie to other youth ministers, who then showed it to their own youth groups.
In early February, Erin and her fellow Reality members also raised money for relief efforts in Darfur when they took part in a national effort called Souper Bowl of Caring. Through this program, youth groups collect money in soup pots after Masses on Super Bowl Sunday and donate the proceeds to charities of their choice, May said.
The teens raised $582.87 that weekend, which is the biggest amount they’ve ever raised through the effort, May added. Everyone who donated money that weekend also received a prayer card and a petition to send to President George W. Bush, asking him to push for a stronger multinational force to protect the people of Darfur.
Although there is no mention of fundraising in Erin’s video, people who’d seen the video soon started sending donations to Erin and May, who then forwarded the money to Catholic Relief Services with a note asking that the funds be used only for humanitarian aid in Darfur. Erin hopes to eventually raise $10,000 for this relief work, but still notes that fundraising is not her primary goal.
“That’s second. I’d really rather raise a lot of awareness,” she said.
“More awareness might eventually take care of the money part,” her mother, Eileen, told the Catholic Courier.
May said she was so impressed with Erin’s efforts that she nominated her for the Ontario Town Board’s Catch a Kid Who Cares! award. This award honors children and teens who are observed doing kind deeds and putting forth extraordinary effort, and the town supervisor presented Erin with a certificate at the March board meeting. Erin is determined not to let the attention distract her from her goal, however.
“It was nice. I just like that it’s going to spread more awareness, not because I want to have my name in the paper, but because maybe people will get curious about (the crisis),” she said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To donate money for Darfur relief, send a check to Erin’s Darfur Project, c/o St. Mary of the Lake Parish, 5823 Walworth Road, Ontario, NY 14519. For a copy of Erin Schultz’s movie on Darfur, contact Carol May at 315/524-2611.