CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: IUPUI grads help tsunami victims

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Many parents today fret over their kids’ obsession with computers, video games and the Internet.

“All he does is sit at that stupid computer.” If I heard that once, I’ve heard it a million times.

But sometimes, when young people’s passion for the digital frontier intersects with compassion for their fellow man, great things can happen.

Such is the case with Chris Podell and Zachary Shields, two recent graduates of the new media and arts program at the IUPUI School of Informatics.

For their graduation project, the pair created a Web site,, which draws attention to the plights of now-forgotten Indonesians whose lives were ripped asunder by the earthquakes and killer tsunami of 2004, and to a pair of young burn victims on the Indonesian island of Nias.

Earlier this month, their efforts won them the People’s Voice Award in the 10th Annual Webby Awards (student category) put on by the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. The Webbys are the equivalent of the film world’s Oscars or the advertising world’s Addy awards. The pair will be honored at a June 12 event in New York.

The international contest-which recognizes excellence in Web design, creativity, usability and functionality-this year drew 5,500 entries from 40 countries, competing in 69 categories.

Some of Shields’ college friends traveled to Indonesia after the disaster to assist in relief efforts as part of University Volunteers International. He was moved by their accounts of what they saw and heard. He discussed his feelings with Podell.

The pair concluded they could help by sharing the Indonesians’ stories with the world-particularly those hardest hit in remote areas-and creating a Web site where visitors could learn more about the islanders’ plights and donate to the non-governmental relief organization, Island Aid.

“We agreed that if we were going to put great effort into a project, we wanted it to matter to somebody in some way,” Podell said. That they did.

Shields, son of Greenfield Daily Reporter Publisher Randall Shields, later visited the islands himself for five weeks, interviewing disaster victims and documenting their stories on film.

The project took an unexpected turn when Shields visited the remote hilltop village of Sifalago Susua on the island of Nias, where he met 14-year-old Erniwati Lai. She and her cousin Soteria, 11, had been horribly burned during an earthquake when a kerosene lamp in their hut fell to the floor and shattered.

They survived the blaze, but their prospects for corrective surgery and other necessary treatments were virtually non-existent.

So, another Web site,, was born. This site contains video interviews with Erniwati’s father, who poignantly explains how the fire happened and discusses his daughter’s and her cousin’s injuries. He also informs us that Erniwati’s mother and little brother were lost during the earthquake when they were swept away in a raging river. The girls display their burns.

Fortuitously during their visit to the island, Podell and Shields met a volunteer, a traveling nurse named Lisa Friesen, who-along with her husband, Tim-volunteered to take care of the girls and house them in Hawaii, where they can receive the treatment they need-for free-at the Shriners Hospital for Children.

Shields estimates it will take $50,000 to pay for passports, visas, shelter and other living expenses for the nine months to a year needed to complete all the care required for the two girls. He is working hard to make that happen.

“Instead of just doing the documentary and handing the whole thing over to somebody else,” he told me last week, “we decided to do it and try to make it happen ourselves.” Hence, he and his partner and friends are trying to raise the money.

All one needs to do is visit these two Web sites to be compelled to act. I would recommend a visit. I’m planning to go there now to make a contribution.

I don’t know if Shields’ and Podell’s parents complained about the boys’ obsessions with computers when they were younger, but I know they are proud of them now. I would be.

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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