Friday, November 2, 2007

The Crisis Junkie

By Taylor Wemmer

Some activists are into politics. Others are into the environment. Morgan Seag is into natural disasters.

I sat down with Seag, a 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania senior recently (10/25) in her apartment’s living room. Movie posters of Disney classics hung on the walls and Halloween candy was piled high on the kitchen table.

Although it was clear she loved fairy tales, our ensuing conversation made it clear that she loved natural disasters more.

Seag is a co-founder and executive board member of NO REST, an acronym for New Orleans Recovery Efforts for a Stronger Tomorrow.

NO REST, started in the spring of 2006, is a Penn undergraduate student group with the goal of fundraising for and sending volunteers to the city of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans hard in late August of 2005, was one of the worst hurricanes to hit the area in years and had left thousands of residents with absolutely nothing.

“I did not intend to become an advocate for the Gulf Coast but I am one and I care about it a lot,” said Seag. There is currently a “lack of volunteers and lack of media coverage, and therefore, a lack of national interest.
It is so important that there are efforts being made on this campus" to continue the aid effort in New Orleans.

In the spring of her freshman year, Seag volunteered with a group of students to go to Sri Lanka to help the country rebuild after the Asian Tsunami hit the country in December 2004.

“I was fascinated by the power of nature. [I asked myself:] how do humans navigate around these forces we cannot control? How can we make the best of these situations? How can we help?” said Seag.

Her fascination with natural disasters was born long before Hurricane Katrina and the Asian Tsunami. It all started at the age of eight in Westwood Hills, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City.

She and her family only lived in Kansas for six months, but it was long enough for the third-grader Seag to develop a secret fascination with tornadoes.

“I always kept a plastic bag of toys near the basement door [just in case.]” she said. “I was always hoping there would be one when I was there.”

Although she never saw one in person, she never forgot that dream. Her senior year ambition recorded in her high school yearbook was to “see a tornado, a volcano, and Antarctica.”

Why Antarctica?

She thought that that would be a more realistic route for her future as an environmental scientist.

Despite this goal, her college career steered her in a different direction. Seag also harbored an interest in international affairs and that is ultimately where her life has taken her, she said.

When the tsunami hit in 2004, she knew she had to go. "This was third grade Morgan shouting out ‘Take me! Take me!’ So I took me to Sri Lanka!” she said.

What she found out while helping rebuild homes in Sri Lanka was that there was a lot more to disaster relief than just humanitarian aid. There were lots of politics involved.

Realizing the role politics played in disaster relief, she declared her major in the field of political science. The tsunami also influenced her in terms of what she would volunteer for next.

“When Katrina hit, it was so clearly the next thing I would be doing,” said Seag.

She and a couple of other students who had traveled with her to Sri Lanka decided to co-found a disaster relief organization for Katrina in 2006. Although they considered making a relief organization that raised funds for all kinds of future crises, they ultimately decided on focusing it solely on New Orleans.

“It was domestic, close to our hearts, and something that we felt we could really make a tangible effect on,” said Seag.

NO REST has been very effective so far in its efforts to reach out to students. They sent five groups of Penn undergraduates to New Orleans the summer of 2006 and raised money to sponsor a Head Start classroom for the holidays later that year.

They have also partnered with FLINOA, Fox Leadership in New Orleans, Louisiana, which, in turn, is a part of Penn’s Provost’s umbrella organization for sending aid to the Gulf Coast.
FLINOA provides a significant amount of funding for NO REST, as well as supplying important connections and infrastructure to which undergraduate groups do not have normally have access.

“Penn is really involved in an incredible way down there. Our goal is to keep future undergraduates aware of and caring about the city. It’s not just about humanitarian aid that [is needed right away], [it’s about] the long term recovery of a city,” said Seag.

She is excited about continuing her efforts to support this city and no matter where her future life might take her, Seag knows “that disaster relief and the city of New Orleans will [always] remain a part of where [she] comes from.”

Signing His Way Across America

His funny and sad tales of
growing up with deaf parents

By Erica Tobin

No one has ever been able to pronounce Alan Abarbanell’s last name.

“It didn’t matter if they were deaf or hearing, everyone mispronounced my name,” Abarbanell told his audience at a recent performance (10/22) at the University of Pennsylvania.
Abarbanell’s stop at Penn was part of The Abababa Road Tour.

Abababa was a name given to Arbanell by a friend who could not pronounce Abarbanell. The one-man show, part of a national tour by the 44-year-old Chicago performer, chronicles his experiences growing up in a deaf family.

Abarbanell did not simply speak to the audience. He communicated with the entire audience, including the deaf members, by simultaneously signing American Sign Language.

Abarbanell is a member of the CODA organization, a group for Children Of Deaf Adults. Each year, the adults in the organization get together so that they can talk about their experiences growing up with deaf parents.

“CODAs tend to lie,” according to Abarbanell. “They’ll tell you things like… ‘I’ve been signing since the moment I was born.’ Or, ‘I’ve been interpreting since the moment I was born,’ and that’s a lie.”

Arbanell comically suggested that he may be the exception to the rule. He said, “I have been interpreting since the moment I was born. And I’m not lying.”

The exact moment Abarbanell began interpreting for his parents began when, he said, “Everything was dark, quiet, I was floating. And suddenly there was a push, and push, and a pull, and there was lights, there was noise, and the doctor pulled me out, and he flipped me upside down, spanked me on the butt, and he said, ‘it’s a boy.’”

He said he remembered clearly, “hanging upside down, and my mother waving at me saying,

‘Alan, what did the doctor say?’”

He said he signed: I’m a boy.

Abarbanell did not see a comedic side to his entire experience growing up with deaf parents, however.

One embarrassing moment occurred when he invited his classmates back to his house for lunch. Both of his parents worked, so the boys would be free to make a mess in the kitchen.

After lunch, the boys jumped around the living room, hopping from chair to chair. Then, the boys leapt off of the furniture, hit the hardwood floors that covered the house, and laughed when they felt the vibrations of the floor planks.

On this day, unbeknownst to Abarbanell, his father was home sick from work.

His father, Joe Abarbanell, screamed when he felt the vibrations of the floor. When Alan’s classmates asked him what the horrific noise was, he was so embarrassed that he told them it was the dog.

Abarbanell said, “It was the first time, it was the first time in my life, I realized that I was a little different. My mom and dad are different, because that noise… that was my father.”

The fact that Abarbanell’s parents were deaf made his life more difficult in some ways, but their deafness made one specific incident much easier for him. He was able to communicate with his mother during her final days of life, when she was in the hospital.

His mother had lapsed into a semi-coma, where she was half awake and half asleep.

Doctors told Abarbanell that it was important for his mother to have family with her while she was in her coma, to support and comfort her. One by one, his three brothers sat with their mother; they held her hand and kissed her goodbye.

Finally, it was time for Abarbanell to say goodbye to his mother. He saw her lying in her hospital bed, hooked up to countless machines. An oxygen mask covered her mouth and nose.

His mother opened her eyes, and he begged her to stay alive. In response, she signed to him.

Abarbanell said, “I got to see my mother’s last words. If my mother were hearing, she’d have the mask on, and the tubes, and the tube going down her throat. She wouldn’t have been able to speak. But my mother was deaf, and she signed. And she signed to me… ‘you are my precious son, and I am going to love you forever.’”

Since that moment, Abarbanell said, he is eternally grateful to have been born a CODA.


You can learn more about the Abababa Road Tour here.