Humanists Recognize OEB Grad Student

Sebastián Vélez, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, was honored with the Award for Service to Humanity by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard in the Kirkland Junior Common Room last night.

The award—which was established last year by Charlie Wilson to honor his son Jamin B. Wilson ’04, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force who died in a car crash in 2006—annually recognizes one Harvard student who has done “something incredible” to improve the world, according to Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg M. Epstein.

The staff and board of directors of the Humanist Chaplaincy—a chaplaincy for humanist, atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious students and staff—selects the award’s recipient. Epstein said the choice wasn’t a very difficult one this year.

“It was glaringly obvious that Sebastián Vélez deserves an award like this,” he said.

Vélez founded Children of the Border, a non-governmental organization which provides medical care, family planning services, and water and food resources to Haitian and Dominican families, seven years ago. This past January, Vélez was working on a water coordination project in Las Mercedes, Dominican Republic when the earthquake hit Haiti. His team immediately took up the cause, bringing $40,000 worth of aid from the American Humanist Association to Jacmel, a city in Haiti that had not yet received any help.

Many of the poor in places like Haiti and the Dominican Republic automatically assume that religion is good because missionaries who bring them much-needed aid are wealthy, according to Vélez. He said he founded Children of the Border in part to show that “religiousness is not a prerequisite for altruism.” The organization is very explicit about the fact that it is a humanist organization, Vélez added.

He said he was “very happy” to receive the award, adding, “We humanists need to learn by example, rather than looking like a debate club.”

In presenting the award, Epstein also emphasized that it was not just a recognition of an individual, but also a celebration of shared ideals of service that the individual represented.

“We set examples for one another, and this is a very, very powerful one,” he said.

The event was attended by members of the Humanist Chaplaincy, the president of the American Humanist Association, and students who Vélez had worked with on his trips and in his former capacity as a resident tutor in Kirkland House.

The students in attendance said they were not at all surprised that Vélez was given the award. K. Abby Koff ’12, who is a Crimson photo editor, said Vélez was “one of the best Kirkland House tutors there will ever be.”

Annemarie E. Ryu ’13, current associate director of Children of the Border and one of five undergraduates who was working with Vélez at the time, said she considers him both a mentor and a friend.

“It always blows me away how he works so hard and does such a great job with so many things,” she said.

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