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In Case of Emergency

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Rotary partners with ShelterBox to help devastated communities. Meet the members on the front lines of disaster relief.

By Photographs from

Three days after Typhoon Haiyan smashed into the Philippines in November 2013, Derek Locke was tramping among the sinews of uprooted palm trees, downed power lines, and fragments of homes shattered by one of the region’s deadliest disasters.

As he delivered tents and other essentials in Santa Fe, a small community on Bantayan Island, he came face to face with the crushing need and finite resources of the eight-person response team dispatched by ShelterBox. The aid recipients had been identified as families most at risk, and as Locke assisted a young single mother and her toddler, he felt a sense of dread as two neighbors, with four children of their own in tow, approached.

“I turned around and they said, ‘Thank you for helping our people, ’” recalls Locke, a member of the Rotary Club of Dearborn Heights, Mich., who has spent 38 weeks as a ShelterBox first responder since 2012. He has traveled to 11 countries and participated in 13 ShelterBox response team missions, yet that moment sticks with him. “It was heartwarming because despite their obvious plight, they were just grateful we were able to help somebody else.” 

“That’s the kind of thing you lie awake at night thinking about,” says Bruce Heller, a veteran of seven ShelterBox deployments and a member of the Rotary Club of Allen Sunrise, Texas. “You’re handing out that last box and you see that mom and her small baby waiting and you don’t have any more to give. There’s never enough aid.”

  1. Typhoons and tropical storms are known to cause heavy rains and extreme flooding in the Philippines, causing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. ShelterBox deploys prepositioned stock for a quick response.

  2. ShelterBox customizes kits to fit each disaster. Tents provide shelter to people who have lost homes, and ShelterKits contain tarpaulins, rope, and essential tools for building or clearing rubble.

  3. ShelterBoxes provide people with more than just shelter. Tents also contain items like cooking sets, solar lights, blankets, and activity sets for children.

  4. ShelterBox response teams help displaced families around the globe.

  5. Tents have partitions inside that allow recipients to divide space however they want.

  6. ShelterBoxes contain family-sized tents specially designed to withstand extreme weather, including winds up to 70 mph.

  7. After a 2015 earthquake followed by landslides in Nepal, local volunteers and ShelterBox response team member Liz Odell unloaded 39 tons of aid in the form of 500 tents and 500 ShelterKits.

  8. ShelterBox response team and the Royal Gurkha Rifles, an elite unit of the British Army, scouted the Sindhupalchowk District in Nepal to get ShelterKits to areas beyond road access after an earthquake and mudslides in 2015.

  9. The British Army's elite Royal Gurkha Rifles used their skills in navigating rough terrain to help get aid to earthquake victims in Nepal in 2015.

  10. ShelterBox provides tents, water purification units, ground sheets, mosquito nets, tools, and other essential supplies.

Amid catastrophes produced by nature and mankind’s cruelest impulses, ShelterBox teams of volunteers rush forward. From the earthquake that killed hundreds of people in Ecuador in April to the continuing refugee trail out of the Middle East, ShelterBox has sent aid to help hundreds of thousands of displaced households.

Notable missions since the disaster relief charity was founded 16 years ago include the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 quake in Haiti, where some 300,000 tents were supplied. In the United States, ShelterBoxes were delivered to those displaced by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Sandy in New York and New Jersey, and tornadoes in the Midwest.

In July, RI and ShelterBox announced the extension of a three-year project partnership to provide emergency shelter, a natural fit according to both organizations. Rotarians, along with Rotaractors and Interactors, have contributed $48 million, or 40 percent of ShelterBox’s revenue, from the UK-based nonprofit’s inception in 2000 through 2015. (ShelterBox was founded by a Rotarian but is independent of Rotary International and The Rotary Foundation.)

ShelterBoxes contain family-sized tents specially designed to withstand the elements and provide people with temporary shelter until they are able to start the process of rebuilding a home. 

The signature green boxes feature Rotary’s logo and are adapted to fit the emergency before being transported on scant notice. Most boxes include family-size tents, though the contents differ depending on the disaster and climate. Many are packed with solar lights, water storage and purification equipment, thermal blankets, and cooking utensils. Depending on need, the organization may deliver ShelterKits, smaller aid packages that include tools, ropes, and heavy tarpaulins used to provide emergency shelter and repair damaged structures. 

“The partnership between Rotary and ShelterBox has provided a place of refuge to people facing some of the most difficult and uncertain moments in their lives,” says RI General Secretary John Hewko. Tapping Rotary’s strengths, not just its funds, has nurtured ShelterBox, adds its chief executive, Chris Warham.

“The partnership is absolutely fundamental to what we do,” Warham says. “Ninety percent of our deployments involve working with local Rotarians. In almost every case, our first call is to the local Rotary club to see how they can help us as the teams start to deploy. We ask Rotarians everything from ‘can you get us a truck?’ to ‘can you introduce us to a local or central government figure?’ These needs are often crucial to the success of our deployment – and Rotarians invariably deliver.”

  • $1000.00

    will sponsor one ShelterBox

  • 90.00%

    of ShelterBox deployments involve local Rotary clubs

  • $48.00 mil

    contributed to ShelterBox by Rotary members

  • 180.00

    people worldwide volunteer with ShelterBox response teams

Rotary has been a key player in ShelterBox’s success, beginning with the adoption of the nonprofit by the Rotary Club of Helston-Lizard, England, in 2000.

“One of the most important elements of our partnership is creating opportunities for Rotarians to serve in countries hit by disasters,” says Warham. “We just completed a mission in Sri Lanka, and Rotarians were fundamental.”

Members of the Rotary Club of Capital City spent five days using boats and kayaks to rescue villagers marooned by flooding in May. “We built temporary camps for individuals who had lost their homes as result of landslides” and housed 126 families in six camps.

“Providing shelter is far more than just providing a tent,” Warham adds. “It’s helping a community start on the right path. … There is a blurring of lines when the emergency phase ends and when the recovery phase begins. Rotary is involved in all stages of that. We’ve seen Rotarians who have helped people long after we have disappeared from the scene.”

Shortly after the 7.8 magnitude temblor in Ecuador in April, local Rotarians met the response team at the airport and jointly attended coordination meetings. ShelterBox assisted more than 2,500 households in Comuna Las Gilces. After significant aftershocks, it returned to support another 690 families.

“We often work with Rotary contacts throughout deployments,” says Mark Boeck, ShelterBox’s senior training officer. “Through their own businesses and personal networks, they have contacts for drivers, interpreters, and even warehousing.” Ron Noseworthy, a member of the Rotary Club of Kenora, Ont., says that he and his wife, Claire, have been volunteering with ShelterBox since learning about it in 2006. They both signed on, with Claire joining Rotary afterward.  

Joining Locke, Heller, and the Noseworthys on the front lines are about 70 more Rotarians out of the 180 responder volunteers globally. The required commitment is hardly casual, with ongoing training and a minimum deployment of two weeks per year, and the selection process is rigorous.

After applying, prospective volunteers are interviewed and, if chosen to proceed, undergo a four-day field assessment. “Successful candidates are invited to what we call a pre-deployment training course,” says Boeck. Those selected spend nine days in England where they are trained in everything from customs forms to personal safety and the use of satellite phones and GPS devices.

Providing shelter is far more than just providing a tent. It’s helping a community start on the right path... We’ve seen Rotarians who have helped people long after we have disappeared from the scene.

ShelterBox chief executive

“We need people who can react and work together under extreme conditions,” says Boeck, noting that sponsoring a standard ShelterBox costs about $1,000. “In the early days [of a deployment] a volunteer may be going to a country where the infrastructure has been wiped out. There is often no food, communication, water. … They might land in a country and not meet their fellow team members [immediately]. We look for self-awareness – people who really understand their own abilities and limitations.”

“The training is tough,” says Liz Odell, a member of the Rotary Club of Nailsworth, England. “If you make it that far, and many don’t, there’s the nine-day course in Cornwall, living in a tent in the rain, deprived of food and sleep, and never knowing what challenges they were going to throw at us next.”

Odell has served on 15 deployments since 2010. Ron Noseworthy, who has been on 11 deployments and counting, found his four-day test a challenge in itself. Four groups of four applicants had assembled in the Blackwater River State Park in the Florida Panhandle. “We had been walking for miles,” he says. “They said to take an hour for supper, but we knew there was something coming. After supper, they said, ‘This is a mock terrorist threat. You’ve got to take the tents down, pack all your gear, and get ready to move out.’ We had a four-mile walk on rough trails, all in the dark, in the bush. You’re tired after a long day and then that. They’re testing to see if you’ve got the physical capacity, but the biggest thing is to not lose your cool.”

“Historically, some of the training was like a boot camp,” Boeck concedes. “Since 2013, when we revamped and refreshed the nine-day training course, we’ve made it into much more of a learning environment. We’re training people in, not assessing people out. We want to give people the information and skills so that when we drop them into a post-disaster situation, they know what’s required of them.”

The training has come in handy on deployments, says Noseworthy, notably in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, where he was in Port-au-Prince with the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. “It was dangerous. People were hungry and desperate,” he says. “A commander told me that they had people with good intentions coming to help. One couple with a truckload of bags of rice pulled up in front of a makeshift camp. People came out of the woodwork. They started to fight over the food. The military had to come in and stop the rioting. With our training, we knew not to do that. We went to a campsite first. If we determined 200 tents were needed and we only had 100 tents, we waited.” 

Volunteer responder Derek Locke uses an app to inventory boxes and ShelterKits as they are distributed in the field.

“You see people who were not living in the greatest of conditions to begin with,” notes Locke, a 2015-16 recipient of the Service Above Self Award, Rotary’s top honor, for his work with the organization over the past four years. “I’m sitting here in my beautiful house in the living room. I just can’t imagine losing everything so quickly and being left with nothing and needing the help that we bring. That applies to every type of disaster. It doesn’t matter if it’s a natural disaster or the Syrian refugees we see fleeing the violence.”

With 18 ShelterBox affiliates around the world assisting its headquarters, the organization is ramping up for a heightened demand for the shelter and gear it provides, particularly with an expected increase in Iraqi refugees as that country’s army tries to retake cities from Islamic State. “We live in really, really challenging times,” says Warham, yet he points out Rotarians as a bright spot. “They don’t just go the extra mile, they go 10 miles.”

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