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In the spirit of giving; Canisius senior raises $22,000 for victims -- some of whom were relatives -- of natural disasters in Japan

One Buffalo teen is affecting the lives of many others across the Pacific.

Nick Sam, a 16-year-old senior at Canisius High School, started the "Hope for Japan" campaign to raise money for relief efforts in Japan, following the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami last March.

Nick has family ties to Japan; his maternal grandmother was born in Japan but came to America in the 1950s, leaving much of her large family behind. As Father Frederick Betti of Canisius High School put it, Nick turned a family misfortune into a citywide effort to benefit the lives of many on the other side of the world.

Nick and his campaign raised about $22,000 for the victims in Japan, but this took a lot of hard work.

After hearing about the tsunami, Nick immediately thought about his family living in the country's northeast, namely in the cities of Sendai and Kesenumma. This area was precisely where the natural disaster had struck. Since methods of communication, such as phone lines, were down due to the subsequent tsunami, the Sam family found it hard to reach its relatives to find out if they were safe. However, through email, they slowly began to find out more information. For example, a friend who lives in Southern Japan was funneling the Sam family news about its relatives.

The first death the family heard of was that of Ken Koshima, one of Nick's distant cousins. The family also learned that since resources were scarce in Japan, many of their relatives could not attend Koshima's funeral because they only had enough gasoline for one car.

Koshima's death triggered Nick's desire to help. Nick immediately went to his father, and together they brainstormed on what they could do to help. Nick thought of selling wristbands at Canisius.

"Then I thought, 'why just stop at my school?' " Nick said.

He then proceeded to contact other schools in the area and local businesses to see if they could help.

"There was overwhelming positive support for the campaign," said Nick. "Most of the people I contacted said they would help."

For publicity, Nick held a news conference at Canisius, inviting representatives from local schools and businesses to attend. He also went on a local TV news station and other such venues to get his message across.

Attorney Paul Cambria donated $650 so Nick could buy the initial amount of wristbands, which cost $3 apiece. The wristbands stated "Hope for Japan" in English and Japanese.

Nick gave a set amount of wristbands to all the schools to sell, but various schools also found different ways to raise money. For example, students at West Hertel Academy in Buffalo contributed about $470 to the campaign by having a penny-collecting drive.

Other schools organized events such as dress-down days, bake sales and pajama days to raise money. Every penny of the $22,000 Nick raised was donated to Peace Winds, which claims that 100 percent of its proceeds go to the relief efforts.

Betti of Canisius High School had been on board with Nick's campaign from the outset.

"When Nick made his proposal to me, I told him that it was the obvious thing for Canisius to do because our school emphasizes service to those in need," said Betti, who helped Nick organize the fundraiser at Canisius.

Nick says he has gained a lot from this experience. He never imagined he would raise as much money as he did, figuring it was going to be a small campaign that would raise only a couple thousand dollars for his family. He added, though, that this process wasn't easy either. He says the initial obstacle was trying to get everything coordinated.

"At the start everything was so overwhelming," he said. "It was so hard to make time for this because I still had many other commitments, such as school work, violin, UB math and rugby practice."

He said it was hard to get everyone on the same page in terms of what he wanted others to do for the fundraiser. But, Nick added, getting people to help was not a problem. He said he was amazed how many people came together to support the cause.

"However, I wish I didn't have to do all this and that the tsunami and the earthquake never happened," Nick said. "Seeing that it did happen, this was the best thing I could do given the circumstances that arose, considering I can't physically bring my cousins back."

Currently, four of Nick's family members have died, and others are still missing. Nick struggles with this every day. Having been to Japan a couple of times in the past, Nick remembers seeing buildings and monuments that are now obliterated. His family members' homes were destroyed, and many of his relatives are still displaced.

"I remember talking to Ken, in as little English as he spoke, and to imagine him gone now is heartbreaking," said Nick. "I really remember a little kid cousin of mine in Japan who was missing for a while, and we certainly thought he and all his family were dead, considering they were missing for so long. However, they were found miraculously in a refuge shelter, and I was the most glad when we found out he was OK."

Nick said the last time he visited Japan, his cousins were drawing pictures for him because they thought it was cool that he was from America. Now when he learns that some of their lives were washed away by the tsunami, Nick feels heartbroken. However, considering much of his family was found to be unscathed, he said he realizes that the disaster could have been a lot worse.

"One of the worst memories about this whole experience was watching my mother continuously cry over this disaster," said Nick. "I came to realize how disasters such as this could drastically affect people."

Nick copes with prayer and the belief that everything will turn out right in the end.

He said he has learned a great deal about leadership and organization while running this campaign.

"I learned what it takes to run something of this magnitude," he said. "I couldn't just hand the responsibility to someone else; I had to constantly make calls and coordinate the whole process."

He said that since he is a kid and not in a position of power, it was even harder to be taken seriously. However, he noted that being a kid had its advantages considering potential donors were amazed that he was doing all that he was at such a young age.

Nick has received much praise for his work, including from Mayor Byron Brown and the Erie County Legislature. Brown met with Nick and announced Oct. 27 as "Nicholas Sam Day" in the City of Buffalo and lauded Nick for his good work and leadership.

"I was extremely surprised and thankful for what the mayor did," said Nick. "I wouldn't have imagined him naming a day after me; it is such an honor."

He received official proclamations from both the Legislature and the mayor's office.

Nick advises all young people to go after something they are passionate about and be a leader in striving to reach that goal. He also said that even though he ran most of the campaign himself, he couldn't have done it without all the people that donated and helped him along the way.

"We started the ball rolling, and the ball just kept rolling and rolling and rolling," Nick said with a laugh.


Michael Khan is a sophomore at Canisius High School.

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