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A Family Lost But a Community Gained

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One of the most frustrating things for an adviser to handle in regard to fraternities and sororities is this stigma that they are all about partying and drinking. No one talks about their philanthropic focus in programming and community service projects. Even knowing the positive work these organizations contribute, I still push for a better sense of community within these Greek organizations, worried about the increase of apathy with each entering class. However, my worries were replaced with pride with the recent collaboration of support toward Jonel Gonzalez.

It turns out that tragedies have a way of bringing people together. The thought of mortality can make anyone want to hug the person right next to them, specifically if the tragedy involves a person you can closely relate to. This week I have seen groups of students come together in support of the Bronx River Parkway tragedy and family recovery Gonzalez, through the leadership of Latino fraternities and sororities.

On Sunday, April 29, Jonel lost seven family members in one of the deadliest accidents New York City has had in recent memory. He lost his mother, aunt, sister, cousins, and grandparents in a car accident in the Bronx. The car spun out of control and flew over a guardrail where the vehicle landed 50 feet below, inside the Bronx Zoo.

News spread quickly over social media. I first read about this on Sunday night on Twitter. My students were mentioning it and I grew concerned that I might know the young man. Upon further reading, it turns out that he is a new member of La Unidad Latina, Lambda Upsilon Lambda Fraternity, Inc. at Pace University in New York City. My heart sank further because I have grown close to many of the students in the Theta chapter here at Syracuse University -- I know they must be feeling Jonel's pain. Additionally, I know many brothers from this chapter when I was an undergraduate myself.

Being one of the advisers for SU's NALFO (National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations), I have taken the time to get to know as many students as I can. It's been hard to trust they understand the notion of community when they give off this aura that only their own brothers and sisters matter and not the council in general. Their internal struggle to find the balance between competition and community has held them back to the point where I found myself asking them questions such as, "Why did you not participate in Latino Heritage Month?"

Such frustrations are met with silence and shrugs. Yet, I've found that as they become upperclassmen, they begin to realize that three letters on their chest mean more than just being a part of an organization, than a process that leads to initiation. Those letters mean that you are automatically a leader on the Syracuse University campus.

I was about to send my condolences when one of my students, Brandon Medina, contacted me to help his fraternity spread the word about this tragedy. He explains to me that the Theta chapter is trying very hard, in conjunction with other chapters of Lambda Upsilon Lambda, to raise money for funeral costs and Jonel should not be alone in figuring out this very trying time. I found myself fighting tears because this is what leadership is about. It is about getting up and being there for other people during the hardest of times. Brandon simply tells me that Jonel may not be a student at Syracuse, but he is still HIS fraternity brother.

While this is highly commendable on a fraternity level, over the last few days, Brandon and the rest of the brothers from the Theta chapter have been posting on Twitter and Facebook consistently. They began to gather the support of all the fraternities and sororities in NALFO and National PanHellic Council (NPHC). You can see them out on campus passing out fliers for a vigil they intend to have at Hendricks Chapel. They are asking people to give just a few dollars to a fund that is now at more than $85,000 in less than a week.

It is not easy to turn pain into something positive, but often it takes a terrible event like this for people to really see the benefits of the Greek community. Latino Greeks are often criticized for not caring about anything but themselves but at this moment, I could not disagree more. I have had several Syracuse University students and alums from different fraternity and sororities contact me about spreading the word about the Gonzalez family in hopes that Jonel and his family can be taken care of. I even had a request to write a blog about this effort.

Why is this one thing so significant? From what I can see at SU, Greek students from every council are coming together to support this cause. They have committed their support because of the same sentiment -- one of their own is hurting. Jonel may have lost a family, but he has gained a community.