It all started with a question: What was Virginia Tech doing in response to the deadly 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Turkey that left an estimated 14 million people homeless in the middle of winter?

“That’s what really started it,” said Shernita Lee, assistant dean and director of the Graduate School’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. “A colleague asked if I knew what was happening.”

At the same time Lee was considering that question, Isil Anakok, a Ph.D. candidate in engineering education and a Graduate School graduate assistant, was asking a slightly different one: What could Virginia Tech do?

She and Lee came to the same conclusion: “We can do something,” Lee said.

Within days, thanks to Anakok’s determination and Lee’s network of contacts, a massive drive for donations to assist those victims netted a wide range of needed items that filled two rooms of the Graduate Life Center and were transported to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C. The embassy will fly the donations to Turkey.

For Anakok, this was a personal mission. A Turkish native and the daughter of a geography teacher, she knew the region hit by the earthquakes on Feb. 6 and in the weeks following. The area is riddled with major fault lines, making it susceptible to such quakes.

She recalled one in 1999 near Istanbul that registered 7.2 on the Richter scale and left 17,000 dead. The latest quakes hit 11 cities, killed at least 45,000 people, and left tens of thousands homeless in the middle of winter. Aftershocks have compounded the damage.

Anakok was recovering from illness and watching a news channel when the earthquake hit. “I literally nonstop watched the news,” she said. “I tried to contact people in Turkey, but the internet was going down because people were trying to reach out to each other. One of the ministries was live on TV, and they declared a Level 4 alarm condition, which means they are seeking international help. … I wanted to do something.”

She connected with fellow Turkish students, all of whom recognized the suffering in their home country. “We felt very heartbroken,” Anakok said. “The only thing we could do was try to get donations.”

Anakok said the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., had posted a list of needed items. She met with Lee, with whom she works at the Graduate School, and asked about organizing a donation drive. “We also contacted the embassy and asked about a timeline for the donations,” Anakok said. They settled on a 10-day drive, Feb. 7-17.

She also enlisted the assistance of the Turkish Student Association. Lee, meanwhile, contacted Fralin Life Science Institute and the Asian Cultural Engagement Center as well as colleagues at the Graduate School. Within days, four donation sites had been established, including one at the university’s Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church, and flyers went out announcing the drive for donations.

Anakok said at least 20 volunteers from the Turkish Student Association worked daily on the drive, organizing, sorting, and storing donations. Steven White, whose Doodles capture life at Virginia Tech for the university's Daily Email, created a drawing to attract attention to the drive, too.

Boxes of donations for earthquake victims sit in front of the Turkish Embassy
Boxes of donations for earthquake victims collected by the Virginia Tech community sit in front of the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Isil Anakok.

The university community immediately responded, filling bins with needed sleeping bags, blankets, clothes, hygiene products, diapers, flashlights, hundreds of pocket warmers, canned and other nonperishable food, three propane camp stoves, and more.

Faculty members, staff, and students all participated as well as the surrounding community, including local Boy Scouts, the Blacksburg Baptist Church, and neighbors who came by to drop off donations. Lee and Anakok created an Amazon wish list so people could purchase needed items online, which were shipped to Lee’s house.

“I could not use my front door because of the boxes,” Lee said. “More than 130 items were ordered and delivered.”

Donations quickly filled the graduate students’ office in the Graduate Life Center. Steve Buchner, who manages the Graduate Life Center, opened a meeting room for the drive, and it quickly filled as well. Turkish Student Association members and other volunteers sorted and organized the donations as quickly as possible, using instructions sent by the embassy.

“Overall, about 300 bags of donations were collected,” Anakok said.

The Graduate School paid for the fleet vans used to transport the items to the embassy. Organizers made two trips, on Feb, 17 and 22, filling two vans each time.

Anakok said embassy officials were delighted with the donations and the fact that Virginia Tech organizers had followed their instructions on sorting and packing them. All of the donations were shipped to Turkey within the following week. She said officials at the embassy said the Virginia Tech donation drive was the most organized they had seen.

For Anakok, the drive was a tribute to her father, who passed away in February 2022. Her father believed in philanthropy and giving to people without fanfare or expectation of gratitude. “My dad taught me to help people secretly,” she said. “My motivation was how I learned from my dad, how I wanted to do it, because this was the first time I was able to help and give back to the community.”

Lee said the drive would not have happened without Anakok and the support of the Virginia Tech community.

“Because of that concerted effort, we had several leaders from numerous entities and we were able to start the drive within days. This was a relational drive,” Lee said. “I have never seen such cohesion on campus and eagerness to donate for any other relief effort in the time I have been here.”

Graduate School Dean Aimée Surprenant agreed. “In this time of tragedy, Isil Anakok and Dr. Shernita Lee acted swiftly and decisively implemented a plan to collect and distribute donations,” she said. “We’re proud of them and how the rest of the community responded so generously to this appeal. The community at Virginia Tech is truly something special.”

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