Carmel Valley Middle Schoolers raise donations to fight COVID-19

Ruby Gao, right and Katherine Ge, second to right, donated surgical masks to Alvarado Hospital through their Project Butterfly.
Ruby Gao, right and Katherine Ge, second to right, donated surgical masks to Alvarado Hospital through their Project Butterfly.

Christine Gao)

The 13-year-old students founded Project Butterfly to show that small actions can make a difference


A pair of Carmel Valley Middle School students set out to prove that individual acts can have a public impact, when they donated thousands of surgical masks and other necessities to local organizations.

Ruby Gao and Katherine Ge, both 13 years old and eighth-graders at Carmel Valley Middle School, named their effort “Project Butterfly,” after the butterfly effect, the premise that small actions may have far-reaching consequences.

The girls raised money to purchase 5,000 surgical masks for medical, public safety and social service agencies dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in San Diego. They also donated N95 respirators, blankets and shoes to help those dealing with the crisis.

“We noticed a lot of places were lacking some protection equipment, and it’s very important during this pandemic to protect yourself and the people around you, so we decided to donate there, because it’s going to help the whole community,” Ge said.

Their donations toward the COVID-19 response grew out of an earlier community service project aimed at helping seniors in their community. The two girls had been volunteering to organize and perform in talent shows at local senior homes, featuring a variety of entertainment.

“We had Chinese martial arts performers, and we had dancers, and we had piano,” Gao said. “It was all types of stuff. It was very diverse.”

Ge performed Tai Chi, a form of Chinese martial arts distinguished by fluid, dance-like movement. Gao played the Guzheng, a string instrument also called the Chinese Zither, which she has studied for about five years. She became enamored of the instrument while living in China for two years because of her mother’s job, and determined to bring it back with her when they returned to the U.S.

“I wanted to have this piece of my culture with me,” she said. “My mom brought me to a Guzheng concert, and I fell in love with the instrument, so I decided to learn the Guzheng.”

As classmates, the girls learned they had a shared interest not only in performing but also in community service. Once the pandemic broke out, they shifted their attention to helping public organizations on the front line.

While the epicenter of the outbreak was in China, they donated money to an organization in Wuhan in February. Later, when cases began to emerge in the U.S., they turned to their network in China to assist San Diego health care and social service providers. Together, they collected donations of more than $3,000 from of friends and relatives in China, and purchased 5,000 surgical masks, and other gear.

“We’re an international organization because we also help people in China and wherever they need help,” Gao said. “We don’t limit ourselves just to California or San Diego. We help everyone.”

Project Butterfly donated 750 surgical masks, 200 N95 respirators, and hand sanitizer to Alvarado Hospital Medical Center in San Diego, at a time when the pandemic was surging in New York, and San Diego County hospitals were bracing for the worst. The aid represented about a day’s worth of protective gear for hospital workers, said Jerymyah Fejarang, the cardiac catheterization lab manager, who worked with them on receiving the donation.

“They donated this back on April 13, that was when we were gearing up for all that potentially could happen,” he said. “We were watching New York very closely back then. But we weren’t sure what kind of allocations we would be getting. That’s where these donations came and they were such a relief to everyone. They enabled everyone to use a mask at least for one day.”

The teens also donated 1,000 surgical masks to the Salvation Army, and 500 each to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and San Diego Police Department, along with N95 respirators, Gao said.

They still have remaining masks to distribute, and recently turned their attention to collecting supplies for homeless shelters. Among their neighborhood, they gathered about 40 gently used blankets, and launched a Gofundme to purchase running shoes, which they donated to homeless organizations in San Diego.

With family ties to both China and the U.S., Gao and Ge said they are aware of the tension between the countries, as well as the need for international cooperation to fight the pandemic.

“This is such a hard time,” Gao said. “And its really important for us to come together and defeat COVID-19 as a group, as one.

— Deborah Sullivan Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune