September 2010 Christchurch earthquake

In the days immediately following the September 4 Christchurch earthquake, while the university's Ilam campus was closed to enable the buildings to be checked for structural safety, 21-year-old Sam Johnson started a Facebook event called the "Student Base for Earthquake Clean up " and invited friends to join with him in assisting local residents with non-lifesaving tasks; in particular cleaning up soil liquefaction residue on the streets and gardens of the city.

Johnson invited 200 friends to the event which soon grew to have more than 3000 attendees and more than 2500 volunteers contributing to the clean up.

In an effort to continue the momentum of the initial clean up, Johnson and the key organisers of the student initiative, Jade Rutherford, Gina Scandrett, Chris Duncan, Tommy Young and Sam Gifford, decided to work with the University of Canterbury Students Association President, Kohan McNab, to create a student club focused on student volunteering; called the UC Student Volunteer Army.


February 2011 Christchurch earthquake

The devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch at 12.51 on 22 February 2011, causing widespread devastation and destruction. 185 people were killed, thousands of homes were damaged, and hundreds of buildings were uninhabitable. Johnson and the six original team members of the Student Volunteer Army teamed up with the University of Canterbury Student Association team, led by President Kohan McNab, Louis Brown from the Te Waipounamu Foundation, Nathan Durkin and Anthony Rohan from White Elephant Trust, together with student clubs ENSOCLAWSOC and MUSOC.

The February operation of the Student Volunteer Army was managed by a core team of 15 people and a wider administration of 70 people who managed the three core operations that the SVA focused on; battalions, squadrons and street teams.

The mass deployment of volunteering, dubbed ‘Battalions’, was the initial focus that saw a maximum of 1000 volunteers fed, watered and allocated to the worst affected areas of Christchurch via charter buses. Squadrons filled a similar role, except instead of students combing the streets and methodically searching for work, the squadrons responded to requests from individuals for assistance that came via the website, call center and partnerships with Civil Defence and city councils. Up to 450 car loads of students were allocated via this system, using a mix of software, texting, and Google mapping. Street teams managed volunteer engagement for various organisations including multiple government departments, Civil Defence, and Christchurch City Council.

"The objective was to increase the efficiency in agencies providing a service; for example delivering chemical toilets and information pamphlets, laying sandbags, staffing data entry and manning call centres. While the perceived focus was on shovelling silt, what mattered most was the intergenerational connection being created and the conversations that occurred between residents and students. Nothing beats a friendly face to talk to.Two of the greatest challenges faced after both earthquakes was locating the areas where volunteers were most needed, and prioritising the work load. With the help of and Snap Internet, Jonas Bergler and his team designed a mobile management system for the Squadrons, whereby residents could register their need for assistance via a free call number, text message service or website. Each job was examined and prioritised by the call centre, manned by the Musical Theatre Society. In delegating team leaders to guide small crews to these sites the SVA, together with the Federated Farmers Farmy Army, helped clear more than 360,000 tonnes of silt and clocked up more than 80,000 volunteer working hours. The Facebook page had more than 26,000 followers and continued to act as a platform to organise and coordinate volunteers in Christchurch communities throughout 2011 following the June earthquake, and the shake of the 23rd December."

The team worked to increase the efficiency of distributing chemical toilets and pamphlets, as well as manning call centres. The student group become known as the Student Volunteer Army, with the Volunteer Army Foundation being the supporting Charity focused on disaster preparedness, youth engagement and service.

A strong focus was also placed on the well-being of residents in the harder hit areas. Volunteers were encouraged to be a cheerful presence on the streets, offering food, drinks, and assistance in finding professional help. Johnson and the other members of the Student Volunteer Army were highly visible and featured in much of the news reporting of the earthquake. Organised using Facebook and social media, the concept enabled thousands of students and residents of Christchurch to make a contribution to those most affected by the devastating earthquakes. At its peak, there were 13,000 students volunteering per week. The team of organisers received high praise from officials in New Zealand and this resulted in them speaking with Prince William about the potential programmes of volunteering involving young people.



Japan and New York

Shortly after the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, Japan experienced a large earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdown. Global DIRT asked Sam Johnson and the SVA to help organise Japanese university students develop a similar volunteer program. Additionally, members of the SVA worked with Global DIRT to help New York City recover after Hurricane Sandy. The Volunteer Army Foundation now focuses on disaster response, preferring to help communities prepare and become more resilient to disasters.