For Taiwanese, the number “921” represents a day of devastation and heartbreak, fear and for many, the tragic loss of loved ones.
Measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, a fatal temblor on Sept. 21, 1999, rattled the entire country when the Chenglongpu Fault, which stretches along the foothills of the Central Mountain Range in Nantou and Taichung counties, shifted. The quake and its aftershocks shook Taiwan throughout the night, leaving behind a death toll that made 921 one of Taiwan’s deadliest natural disasters.
According to the National Fire Agency, the earthquake killed more than 2,400 people and left 11,443 severely wounded. Around 150 children were orphaned.
The total cost of damage to buildings and infrastructure was NT$300 billion (US$9.2 billion).
The quake devastated more than 40,000 homes, but did not shatter the country’s spirit. In the wake of the tragedy, communities united to help those in need and the expatriate community was no exception. In central Taiwan, expats were especially active in reaching out to their neighbors.
Ten years later, the American Chamber of Commerce in Taichung (AmCham Taichung) is still helping ensure the welfare of the 921 orphans and other needy children in the area.
Established in 1993, AmCham Taichung, which seeks to serve all foreign nationals and not just Americans, functions as a bridge between the expatriate and local business communities and Taichung City Government.
In addition to offering standard services to the community and businesses, AmCham Taiwan has made a name for itself through its KIDZ program.
Established six years ago by then-chairman Jack McDowell, who spent six years of his childhood in an orphanage in Tennessee, the KIDZ program began with a full-day Christmas party for the city’s disadvantaged children.
The project has since evolved, providing juice and milk daily to Christian Herald Orphanage (台中光音育幼院) and special needs children at the Daniel A. Poling Babies Home. It also offers high school scholarships to all the orphans at the Christian Herald Orphanage, which includes some of those who lost their parents in the 921 quake.
“The philosophy behind the program is that if we can help those children to have a better future by making sure they receive an excellent education, they could move forward and have a more productive life and pursue a professional career,” AmCham Taichung chairman Nathan Hines said.
These individuals could eventually help others in need or make other contributions to their communities, Hines said.
The first group of students to receive the scholarships are expected to graduate next year. In September, another 21 teenagers from the orphanage start high school with financing from AmCham.
Depending on whether a child attends a private or public high school, tuition per semester ranges from NT$20,000 to NT$60,000.
“If the kids can test into high schools, we want to make sure the funds are available for them. But right now it is a struggle to come up with enough funds to cover the expenses,” he said, adding that this had become more difficult with time because many of those orphaned in the 921 quake are high school age now.
Douglas Habecker, the chamber’s secretary-general, expressed gratitude to all the donors who have supported the program, but said more was needed. Donations of any sum are appreciated, he said.