Medical staff talk at a hospital in Wuhan in China's Hubei province during the coronavirus outbreak in the city. The World Health Organization has declared a global emergency over the disease. (Photo: AFP)
Two Chinese students at a Catholic high school in a suburb of New York are looking to make a difference in helping to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the United States.
In late March, senior Mengze Li and freshman Lixin Yan of the Franciscan-run St. Anthony's High School in South Huntington returned home to China, where they have since procured 10,000 sterilized medical-grade face masks and protective clothing for distribution to international schoolmates who remain with their host families on Long Island amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
They also have earmarked a portion of their supplies for hospital workers on Long Island, a Covid-19 hotspot with more than 61,000 confirmed cases as of April 24. Nearly 2,400 people in the region have died from virus-related illnesses, including one parent and nearly 50 grandparents of St. Anthony's students.
Li and Yan are among the 247 international students from 16 nations who attend St. Anthony's, a school with an enrollment of 2,419. Half of the foreign students returned to their home countries after New York governor Andrew Cuomo ordered state schools to close in mid-March because of the expanding health crisis. It remains uncertain if the schools will reopen before the end of the academic year.
Alex Kissel, director of St. Anthony's international program, said Li, whose nickname is D'Angelo, reached out to the school once he arrived at his home in China. He wanted to help the school community in its time of need, Kissel said.
"D'Angelo said, 'I have this idea, this is what I want to do,'" Kissel recalled. "He wasn't asking for help. We've done very little other than to help coordinate the shipping. It's been the students' efforts."
In an exchange of emails with Catholic News Service, the 19-year-old Li said because his country was the first to be impacted by the coronavirus, he has long known the seriousness of the outbreak. "I'm just trying my best to offer a little help," he said.
Li launched his project following an arduous journey to his home in southeast China. The trip included a 16-hour flight from New York and a two-week government-mandated quarantine at a hotel. He lives with his parents and a younger sister not far from the Hong Kong border.
Li, who plans to attend New York University in September, said it wasn't difficult to find a supply of masks.
"Because the quarantine in China has been so successful, many factories are back to work," he said. "Obtaining those masks is relatively easy. Only the price goes up a little bit, but it's much cheaper than months ago."
Yan, 15, whose nickname is Lareina, told CNS in an email that she was aware of the shortage of "masks and [protective] clothes" in the US and that she wanted to "help people in need."
She immersed herself into the project following a 13-hour flight to Beijing from New York and a 15-day quarantine at a hotel. The teenager resides in the nation's capital with her parents, two grandparents, two younger brothers and an aunt.
Li, who lives 1,400 miles from Yan, said he and his schoolmate paid US$4,000 for the masks, protective clothing and shipping. Yan said she intends to organize a fundraiser at some point to help defray the expenses. Because exports are subject to intense scrutiny by China and US customs agencies, the supplies were not expected to arrive in New York before early May.
Li and Yan, like all their schoolmates in Long Island and around the world, are completing their coursework through distance learning.
Yan said she is looking forward to the day she can return to St. Anthony's. One of 130 Chinese students in the school's international program, she can't wait to once again sit in a classroom, walk the hallways and hang out with her friends.
"I really love our school," she said. "The teachers are all very nice and people are really helpful and kind."
Franciscan Brother David Migliorino, St. Anthony's principal, said he cried when he heard Li and Yan wanted to do something positive for others.
"They are sweet, lovely kids," Brother David said. "I can't say enough about them. We can learn from children. I learn from children every day. It takes my breath away to think about how there's so much suffering in our world presently, but yet simple acts of the children bring the world together. It's incredible."