by Tom Pedulla –
Michal Kozlowski of Tarrytown will always be grateful that the buffet line for pierogies was long when he attended World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland in the summer of 2016.
The wait allowed him to converse with another teenager, a Syrian refugee, who ended their exchange by asking Kozlowski if there was anything that could be done to help meet the urgent needs of those fleeing Civil War in his country.
When Kozlowski returned home, he spoke to Gibran Mourani and Michael Mauguin, former classmates at Transfiguration School who became good friends. They were soon joined by Lily McHale, Nicholas Sinopoli, Joseph Gullotta and Jane Singman. Relief United was born in September 2016.
In two years, the effort has grown to include 65 students representing 13 high schools in the tri-state area. Through events such as bake sales, car washes and a Project Syria Live benefit concert held at Kingsland Point Park, it raised approximately $21,000 used to purchase supplies for medical stations in Aleppo, Syria.
They turned their attention domestically this year, aiming to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Kozlowski, a senior at Regis High School in Manhattan, hopes Relief United will eventually spread nationally.
“If everyone takes the seed of Relief United and brings it to their colleges,” he said, “this could erupt into something even bigger.”
Mourani noted that some members of his family fled Syria, making last year’s cause “very personal.” He believes Relief United exceeded its initial fundraising expectations because members of his generation take a world view.
“We’re teens helping teens and families helping families,” he said. “These people need necessities in refugee camps. There is no other issue than that, and that’s a testament to our ability to have empathy.”
Relief United is working now to raise funds for Companions for Heroes.
“They pair a shelter dog that doesn’t have a home and doesn’t have anyone to love them with a veteran who needs a companion to love. So, it’s a perfect pairing,” Kozlowski said. “What we’re saying this year is we’re really saving two lives.”
Anyone wishing to donate may do so by visiting the web site of the non-profit organization: www.ReliefUnited.org. The teens hope to exceed the $21,000 they raised in 2017.
Mauguin believes time will show that members of his generation will turn words into action. “People want to be a part of something bigger. They definitely want to,” he said. “It’s whether they have the resources or the support or the confidence.”
Kozlowski’s father served in the military for 26 years. He also plans to serve and said of veterans, “These veterans went out there and sacrificed everything so we can be talking about our opinions. They deserve to be respected.”
Mauguin is confident Relief United’s early success signals good things to come from his peers. “Our generation is very giving,” he said, “and we’re always looking out for one another.”
Mauguin looks for political and racial divides to be overcome by energy and optimism. “Even within our core group, we have different opinions,” he said. “But it’s about the big picture, which is humans helping humans. We’re able to step back and it’s a humanitarian effort. It’s not about politics, race, religion, anything like that.”
Kozlowski was recently accepted into Princeton. He already approached students there about embracing Relief United.
“My big hope, maybe when I’m 30, is that Relief United will be a platform for teenagers to do good things across America,” he said with youthful enthusiasm that, so far, has been hard to deny.