URI’s Chinese-American Community Steps Up to Protect Local First Responders

200,000 surgical masks being loaded
The 200,000 surgical masks from China were loaded onto a truck for delivery to the RI Department of Health.

By Neil Nachbar

When University of Rhode Island Distinguished Engineering Professor Qing “Ken” Yang first learned that our nation’s hospitals are in desperate need of personal protective equipment, he had just received a shipment of surgical masks that he purchased for his family, friends and co-workers in the URI Chinese Culture Club.

With the assistance of URI Vice President Peter Snyder and the College of Nursing’s Betty Rambur, the club members donated 160 of their masks to Lifespan.

That turned out to be only the first of several rounds of donations the club would make between mid-March and early-April to organizations throughout Rhode Island and on the URI campus.

Two boxes of masks for South County Hospital.
Two boxes of masks were donated to South County Hospital.

“Our goal has been to help each other and help the community during this pandemic,” said Yan “Lindsay” Sun, president of the club and professor of electrical and computer engineering at URI.

“Together we can make a difference and help our heroes on the front line who are fighting COVID-19,” added Yang.

The Chinese Culture Club normally organizes and hosts cultural and linguistic activities for URI faculty, staff, students and their families. Activities have included welcome sessions for new faculty and staff, celebrations of traditional Chinese festivals and roundtable discussions on successful research conducted at URI.

When the coronavirus spread to the United States, and more specifically Rhode Island, the club quickly shifted its focus to helping as many people as it can.

masks for the Jonnycake Center
A small box of masks were dropped off for the staff at the Jonnycake Center.

The group’s second donation occurred soon after the first, when Yang’s wife identified a trustworthy source of medical N95 masks in China. With the help of College of Pharmacy professor Xuerong Wen, engineering lecturer Jillian Cai, and URI staff members Lisa Chen, Jin Sha and Baohong Zhang, the club raised $5,000 in two days to purchase the masks.

Next, the club was asked to join businessmen Louis Yip and Sunny Ng in their effort to secure 200,000 masks for the Rhode Island Department of Health. Using their contacts, at the request of Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, Yip and Ng located a factory in China that agreed to sell them the masks, but it would cost $110,000.

Once again, the URI Chinese Culture Club rose to the occasion, raising about $7,000 to go toward the purchase.

In addition to the organizations previously mentioned, the club also donated masks to several departments on campus, including Health Services, Dining Services, Emergency Medical Services and the maintenance staff. 

In the nearby communities, bundles of masks were delivered to South County Hospital, the Thundermist Health Center, the Jonnycake Center and the South Kingstown Police Department.

“The URI Chinese Culture Club generously donated almost 350 masks to South County Health,” said Christine Foisy, Interim Vice President of Development of South County Hospital. “The equipment is critical to our front line healthcare providers. We appreciate the support.”

Several members of the URI Chinese Culture Club have children who are doctors and nurses who have been treating COVID-19 patients, making the cause more personal. 

“Although many of our loved ones who are treating patients are not in Rhode Island, we have all felt a sense of urgency to do something to help,” said Sun.

Sun estimated that the club has about 48 members from 31 families who have helped raise money and locate available masks. Members include fellow engineering professors Haibo He, Tao Wei, Jillian Cai, Bin Li, Yu Bi, Walt Besio, Zhongqin Zhang, Jyh-Hone Wang and Chengzhi Yuan.