Published March 3, 2010

Last Thursday the entire student body at Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences left their final class of the day 10 minutes early to send text messages. The kids were stoked, especially because cell phones normally must be kept in lockers during school hours. Seconds after the announcement came out over the P.A. the halls were filled with excited sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders scampering out to the athletic field for the school’s first text-a-thon. (First reported by the Observer’s Loren Mayo.)

After the devastating earthquake in Haiti last month, SSA+S’s Service Learning Club sprung into action, collecting blankets and medical supplies as part of their participation in the Red Robin Foundation’s U-ACT Program, an initiative designed specifically for junior high students aimed at inspiring random acts of kindness. SSA+S Art Director David Carr saw a big opportunity for the U-ACT team in modern technology. “My main focus was to get the kids to start the chain,” says Carr. “I specifically told the kids you can text it to as many people as you want, but when you go to that website you’re going to need a credit card to pay. It starts with the kids, it gets to the adults, then the adults start doing it. Once they see what it is I don’t see why they wouldn’t — out of all consciousness — just pass it on.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Haiti disaster Carr saw the flood of supplies coming into the Caribbean nation and realized that the biggest challenge for Haitians in the coming months would be shelter. “So I bought and set up the website,” he says. “I did a little research and found out that ShelterBox was set up in Lakewood Ranch.” ShelterBox USA is nonprofit that distributes boxes with tents and life-sustaining supplies immediately following disasters around the globe. “I contacted her and asked what we can do,” says Carr.

Joni Corcoran, youth coordinator for ShelterBox, liked what she heard: “I thought, ‘Wow, what a unique idea. This is really innovative.’” Each ShelterBox, which can support a family of 10, costs $1,000, so Corcoran is all about creative fundraising ideas. “The need is tremendous,” she says. “We’ve sent 8,000 boxes and they’re estimating about 15,000 to 20,000 boxes before it’s all over. They’re anticipating about 1 million displaced, so we had to prioritize and get them to people with families.”

A native of East Africa, Carr wanted a way to keep the charitable spirit alive after disasters had faded from people’s minds. “Living in Africa and seeing it on a daily basis, like when they had Live Aid, it’s all very well and they give all this money and then they’ve forgotten about it,” he says. “So for me it’s a matter of sustaining whatever efforts you are doing to rebuild somewhere.” Carr found the solution in the palm of his hand: “When I saw that texting was being used for charitable purposes, like the Red Cross does, I said, ‘What a great way to get people to get stuff out. Put a chain thing together and you’re rocking and rolling.’ Unfortunately, it has taken a couple weeks longer than I wanted. But once the kids started getting wind of it yesterday I had kids asking me all day long, ‘When are we supposed to get our phones?’”

Corcoran loves working with children and says that schools have always been a big part of ShelterBox’s success. “You show them the tents and a video of people who have lost their homes and kids just respond,” she says. “They are our best supporters. … I think it’s great he’s using technology. I think it’s just the new wave of a generation. It’s just the way we communicate now and it’s not going away. Texting has really just opened up a whole wide world.”

Photo by Tim Sukits

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