In the aftermath of Turkey’s earthquake, Coal Ridge student now focused on helping fellow survivors |

In the aftermath of Turkey’s earthquake, Coal Ridge student now focused on helping fellow survivors

Disaster fundraiser being held at Coal Ridge High School boys basketball game on Friday

Coal Ridge senior Caleb Thompson slices bread for earthquake survivors in Turkey.
Courtesy/Caleb Thompson

Thousands of miles from home, Coal Ridge High School senior Caleb Thompson is wide awake at 4 a.m., inside a 10th-floor apartment flat near Adana, Turkey. 

Thompson, 18, gets out of bed for a glass of water. He notices heavy rain outside — the most he’s seen in Turkey. Then the floor underneath him begins to rumble. Thompson, an American exchange student, then soon discovers his entire host family — father Anıl, mother Kadriye and sister Efsun Yuvacı, even their dog, Muffin — is also awake.

Turns out, they were give or take 115 miles away from the epicenter of an earthquake that killed more than 35,000 people in Turkey and another 5,800 in Syria, according to the most recent estimates.

“We kind of hugged and braced in case the building fell down,” Thompson told the Post Independent over Zoom on Wednesday. “After that first wave, we tried to get our stuff and leave the building but we were too late before the aftershock came and hit us.”

“And so we kind of went to our brace position again. The second aftershock was really scary.”

Coal Ridge senior Caleb Thompson stands beside tents used to house earthquake survivors in Turkey.
Courtesy/Caleb Thompson

Prior to the Feb. 6 catastrophe, Thompson spent the past six months touring cities along Turkey’s border with Syria. He’d make regular visits to places like Gaziantep, where he’d walk the streets and acclimate himself to old Ottoman facades and block apartment rows. In the earthquake’s aftermath, many of those buildings are now in shambles.

“It’s so emotionally charged for me,” Thompson said. “I know people that live in those buildings.”

Thompson and his host family escaped death that horrible night, swiftly grabbing what they could out of the apartment before the next quake hit. But he personally witnessed two of the apartment buildings next to his collapse — then blood and sirens. 

“Something I’ll never forget is going by places and smelling the bodies,” Thompson said. “Also, going to the hospital and seeing how full it was and just overrun, and seeing people not necessarily dead but just crippled and probably not in a position to get treatment because there just wasn’t enough personnel.”

Back in New Castle, shortly after the first earthquake, Thompson’s mother, Gina, received a phone call from her son. He told her about the quake and that he’s fine. Twelve hours later, another earthquake reverberates throughout his region, and Caleb again called his mother back in the U.S. to tell her he was fine.

“My family was a bit concerned, obviously,” Caleb said. “But hearing my voice and hearing that I was OK really provided a lot of solace.”

Caleb said his host family immediately relocated him to another house with a garden, where he currently resides to this day. Meanwhile, Caleb’s newly adopted Turkish friends were taken to empty, abandoned high school basketball gyms, waiting under a certain malaise with scores of newly displaced people in the cold of Turkish high country.

Coal Ridge senior Caleb Thompson, left, speaks with a disaster relief crew in Turkey following the earthquake.
Courtesy/Caleb Thompson

Caleb felt it was unfair, but surveying the damage a couple days after the quake was when the high school senior from the Western Slope began taking action.

“Seeing these massive, massive salons just full of thousands of people without a home? That was very, very compelling to me,” Caleb said. “That was the moment I realized, because I’m an American and in this program, I get to go to a warm home and people look after me.”

“But there’s other people who don’t have that opportunity.”

An American Abroad

The Thompson family is one of academia. Gina teaches math at Coal Ridge High School, Caleb’s older brother, Joseph, received the prestigious Daniels Scholarship last year and is currently enrolled at Colorado State University. Caleb himself is right now interviewing with Ivy League schools over Zoom, from Turkey.

Amid these scholars, Caleb said he also grew up traveling the world — visiting places like Thailand, Taiwan, Hungary, Croatia and more. Back home in western Garfield County, Caleb was also heavily influenced by two things: the region’s Latino culture and exploring the world from a desk in the class of his AP world history teacher, Mr. Nicholas South.

So when an opportunity came up with Mountain and Plains District 5470 Rotary Youth Exchange to live in Turkey his senior year, Caleb was inspired to pack his bags.

“I didn’t expect something like this,” Caleb said of the earthquake.

The aftermath 

The days following the earthquake saw Caleb, who’s keen on studying international relations in college, help the recovery effort in two ways. 

Caleb’s Turkish is getting better by the day, so he is working as a translator at the airport in Adana. He also helped set up tents and is currently distributing sandwiches to survivors in makeshift assembly lines.

Every once in a while, Caleb said, people are given rations of Adana Kebob — a local symbol of hope.

“That was a moment that I was very proud of the efforts I’ve made to learn Turkish and really become assimilated in this culture, because I was giving instructions,” Caleb said. “And just kind of taking a leadership role in that situation, when a lot of people were stressed and panicked.”

Later in the coming days, Caleb said he helped distribute stoves, blankets and more.

Coal Ridge senior Caleb Thompson donates blood while in Turkey following a catastrophic earthquake.
Courtesy/Caleb Thompson

Caleb said people are right now convinced Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government have turned their back on the people. He said many donations given to Turkey don’t even go to the people and somehow end up in the black market.

In a letter to friends and family, Gina said, in the last week, Caleb has found many ways to be involved in relief efforts, including setting up tent shelters, donating blood, preparing food, visiting a hospital, and helping with logistics and translation for international aid groups arriving at the airport.

“Supplies meant for victims are being sold out of trucks, or driven to other countries to sell for profit,” she said. “Basically, it is the nightmare of people who want to donate money and help: donations getting squandered or grifted.”

Gina said they have created one way to donate to help provide funds as they are needed over the next few months. Caleb’s home Rotary Club of Glenwood Springs has opened a donation account at Alpine Bank where people can send donations that will be transferred to the Güney Adana Rotary Kulübü to fund relief projects in and around Adana.

On Friday, Coal Ridge High School itself is hosting a Turkish relief fundraiser during the boys basketball game against Aspen, where people can win things like ski tickets. The game begins at 7 p.m.

“The dream that we have in the Rotary Program here is to do a really big tent camp project, with like 3,000 tents,” Caleb said. “We’ll see where the money situations and logistics and everything.”

To donate

If you would like to donate, there are a few ways to do it. Incredibly, in the year 2023, unless you have an account with Alpine Bank there is no easy way to click a link and make a contribution, Gina Thompson said.
• If you have an Alpine Bank account, you can transfer funds from your account over the phone to the Rotary Club of Glenwood Springs Turkey Disaster Relief Fund
• If you are located in Colorado, you can go into any Alpine Bank branch and make a deposit to the Rotary Club of Glenwood Springs Turkey Disaster Relief Fund.
• You can write a check to Rotary Club of Glenwood Springs Turkey Disaster Relief Fund and send it to Alpine Bank, PO Box 10000, Glenwood Springs, CO 81601
• You can Venmo Gina Thompson money (@Gina-Thompson-15, phone number is 970-948-2148) and she will deposit it into the account

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