Students building bridges with a hug

It started as a Kamiak High School student’s idea to add a spirit of giving back during her family’s vacation to the West African nation of Ghana, where her parents were born.

Rachel Bervell organized a teddy bear drive, Hugs for Ghana, at her school in 2007, collected the stuffed animals, then brought them along to distribute to village children during her family’s visit. But during that visit it became clear to Rachel and her younger brothers, Joel and Michael, that there was a need for more than teddy bears. In following years, the drives were expanded to collect school and medical supplies, toiletries and backpacks and the money to transport the items to Ghanaian villages and distribute them. The drives soon expanded to include other schools in the Mukilteo School District.

An annual fundraiser with Ghanaian drumming, music and food, helped to raise money for the effort, which is now a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity.

Over the years, the three Bervell siblings have moved through Kamiak High School. Rachel graduated from Harvard and is now enrolled at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. Joel is a junior at Yale. And Michael, who graduated from Kamiak last June, followed his sister’s path to Harvard.

But Hugs for Ghana continues on. A fundraiser is scheduled for Friday evening at Mukilteo’s Rosehill Community Center.

Even before his senior year, Michael Bervell said, the plan had been to turn the organization over to a board of other Kamiak students.

“We had talked about expanding it early on and weren’t worried about it continuing,” Michael Bervell said.

Among the group’s leaders now are senior Michael Yi and sophomore Kristine Tandoc, who with the help of others, have expanded the annual fundraiser to include a broader mix of international cultures.

The intention from the start, all have said, was to give back to the world community and help those who were in need, but their volunteer work has introduced them to new cultures and customs. Yi, for instance, was intrigued to learn that the moves of a Ghanaian dancer are directed by the drummers’ rhythms.

Hugs for Ghana already has expanded beyond Mukilteo, Michael Bervell said. There are chapters at Inglemoor High School in Kenmore, Bellevue High School and Newport High School, as well as chapters in Florida and New York. And the international scope of the organization also is expanding with Hugs for Tanzania, Hugs for Pakistan and Hugs for Greece.

Michael Bervell said the organization hopes to deliver aid to Greece by next year, partly in response to the refugee crisis in Europe from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.

“We want to move this past just one country and make a global impact. We want to help people no matter who they are and where they are,” said Bervell, who is studying business and philosophy at Harvard and is considering a career in philanthropic work.

The organization’s volunteer board members also offer help locally, providing tutoring to younger students.

Both Michael Yi, whose heritage is Korean, and Kristine Tandoc, whose parents are from the Philippines and Mexico, also are interested in continuing their work in Hugs past their time at Kamiak.

At a time when others talk of building walls between countries and seek to create divisions among cultures, it’s heartening to see young Americans intent, instead, on building bridges and strengthening bonds.

Fundraiser Friday

Hugs for Ghana’s annual Culture Night fundraiser, is 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Rosehill Community Center, 304 Lincoln Ave., Mukilteo. Tickets are $20 and include a multicultural buffet dinner, live entertainment and silent auction. Tickets are at the door. For more information email hugsforghana@gmail.com.

For information about Hugs for Ghana, go to www.hugsforghana.org.

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