After a grueling year of preparation, two Rotarians and a Rotaractor face one last challenge before they can join the elite ShelterBox Response Team
In the summer of 2016, Wes Clanton was looking for something to do. Which, if you knew him – and knew his crowded schedule – might have come as a surprise.
An officer in the merchant marine, Clanton was already spending six months a year – 60 days on and 60 days off – crisscrossing the Pacific Ocean on a cargo ship. He was also in graduate school, working toward an advanced degree in marine transportation management – “basically,” he says, “like an MBA for boat driving.”
But an important aspect of Clanton’s life was missing.
When he was a child, his parents had, as he puts it, “done mission trips,” and they had instilled in him the same passion to give back to his community, be it locally or on a global scale. That’s one of the reasons he joined Rotary.
“What appealed to me was the service aspect,” he explains. “I was looking to do something that was greater than myself.” (At the time, Clanton was a member of the Rotary E-Club of District 5010, Alaska-Yukon; he has since transitioned into the Rotary Club of Nashville, Tennessee, USA.)
Nonetheless, he wanted to do more. “I was looking for an opportunity to volunteer, for a larger project that I could work on,” he recalls. That’s when a friend told Clanton about ShelterBox.
Founded by a Rotary member in the United Kingdom in 2000, ShelterBox responds to natural and manmade disasters, providing temporary shelter and other essential nonfood aid to displaced people around the world.
In 2004, after a tsunami left more than 200,000 dead in a dozen Asian countries, ShelterBox was there. As it was after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines three years later. More recently, ShelterBox assisted survivors of hurricanes in the Caribbean, displaced families in Bangladesh and Syria, and war-ravaged communities in Iraq.
Not knowing what to expect, Clanton, now 33, decided to try to join the exclusive ShelterBox Response Team (SRT), which annually expects two three-week deployments from each of its 163 rigorously trained volunteers, about 20 percent of whom are Rotary members.
“From the first time I heard about it, it seemed like a great fit with my work schedule and my interests,” Clanton says. “I knew this was something I could do long term and utilize my time off.”
The demanding yearlong process of finding a spot with the SRT began in December 2016 when, after an online test, a lengthy application form showed up in Clanton’s email. “I thought, ‘This is absolutely insane,’” he recalls. “The demands of the application were mind-blowing. I’m all about volunteering and spending a lot of time doing it, but I didn’t know if this was it.”
But for Clanton, the challenge turned out to be part of the allure. He completed the application and, in the ensuing months, took the steps that would lead him closer to becoming a ShelterBox responder.
“There’s a decent amount of work that has to be done,” he says. “Turning things in and lots of reading and watching videos and things like that. In combination with my job and grad school, getting all that stuff done was kind of overwhelming.”
About 350 candidates began the process along with Clanton. Eleven months later, ShelterBox invited only 20 of them to Cornwall, England, where a no-nonsense trainer announced, “This is your final exam.” One of those 20 was Wes Clanton.
"The demands of the application were mind-blowing."
Wes Clanton, Rotarian and ShelterBox volunteer
Bend but don’t break
Extending into the English Channel, Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula is England’s southernmost point.
“The Lizard is a wonderful area to run training for ShelterBox,” says Colin Jones, a slender man with tattoo-covered arms who serves as lead trainer. “It’s quite bleak, there’s not a lot around, and it often rains, which makes people miserable. So that’s really useful.”
During the training, the final candidates spend days in the classroom learning skills that may prove invaluable during their deployments. Divided into teams, they also crisscross Cornwall and deal with different disaster scenarios that simulate situations they might encounter.
We pick a range of elements that will get them mentally and physically prepared to undertake that first deployment,” says Jones, who is assisted by three other trainers.
“We’re here to throw them as many curves as possible,” adds Bruce Heller, a member of the Rotary Club of Allen Sunrise, Texas, USA. A veteran of 10 ShelterBox deployments, Heller is one of nine “shadows” here in Cornwall to monitor and mentor the trainees.
Liz Odell is another shadow. A member of the Rotary Club of Nailsworth, England, she has been on 18 deployments.
She recalls the training regimen she endured as more physically demanding, though perhaps less effective. “It rained constantly, we were poorly fed, and we got shouted at a lot. It was very hard to learn anything under those conditions. The training now is more targeted and well-rounded.”
And miserable. Don’t forget miserable.
Ned Morris is someone doesn’t get rattled when unexpected challenges are thrown at him. A wine-maker, a wine consultant, and an avid outdoorsman, he’s also something of a Boy Scout: He supplemented his yearlong ShelterBox training with a rugged 10-day wilderness program in Wyoming, and CPR and first-aid classes with the Red Cross.
A member of the Rotary Club of Walla Walla, Washington, USA, Morris, 48, started out as a ShelterBox ambassador, traveling around the Pacific Northwest to raise awareness about, and money for, the organization. He also participated in the ShelterBox Ambassador Field Experience, a three-day event in Texas that simulates the deployment of a ShelterBox Response Team.
“We went through some of the hoops that SRTs have to jump through” – such as getting stuff out of customs – “and encountered a lot of the hurdles they have to deal with, like reporters with microphones in your face. It gave us a snapshot of what it’s like when they’re deployed,” he says.
His appetite whetted, Morris applied to become a full-fledged ShelterBox responder, embarking on the same yearlong process as Wes Clanton. As a final step before the Cornwall deployment, he joined Clanton and 14 other applicants for a four-day field assessment outside Toronto.
“Going in, I had no idea what to expect,” says Clanton. “ShelterBox laid out very specifically what (camping gear) you needed to bring, and as long as you had those things, you were prepared.”
Clanton is tight-lipped about the experience – “I can’t say too many specifics about what actually happened” – but Morris is slightly more forthcoming.
“It wasn’t as physical as I was expecting,” he reveals, while acknowledging some psychological challenges. “They gave us scenarios where there was a limited amount of aid and a lot more beneficiaries who needed it. Having to make those critical decisions of who would get it and why was heart-wrenching. That was the hardest part for me, knowing that we can’t help everyone – and knowing that when I am deployed, I’m going to be part of the team that makes those decisions. And it’s not going to be easy.”
"That was the hardest part for me, knowing that we can’t help everyone – and knowing that when I am deployed, I’m going to be part of the team that makes those decisions."
Ned Morris, Rotarian and ShelterBox volunteer
From practicality to reality
Clanton’s reticence is standard ShelterBox procedure.
When I visited Cornwall, the organization wouldn’t allow me to see all aspects of its training, such as the nightly debriefing sessions. Nor was I allowed to report on everything I did see.
Keeping the lid on certain particulars of its training regimen is a key element of the program’s success. Going into a deployment, ShelterBox responders have no idea what surprises they might encounter. Neither, reasons ShelterBox, should its trainees as they approach their final exam. As Clanton puts it, “You need to be you reacting in those situations.”
Rotary and ShelterBox are project partners for international disaster response. A registered charity, ShelterBox is independent of Rotary International and The Rotary Foundation.
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Rotary and disaster response
Still, having seen the training procedures up close, and without tipping ShelterBox’s hand, here is what I would tell a candidate heading to the dismal barrens of Cornwall. Expect to eat little and sleep even less. Expect bad breaks and worse weather. Expect disquiet piled upon dread. Expect the trainers and shadows to both teach and test. Most of all, expect the unexpected – and then expect more of the unexpected immediately on its heels.
That’s part of the rigor of the final exam. It’s a ShelterBox tactic – simulating what so often happens in real life – to follow up a dramatic, even dangerous situation with, say, a simulated high-pressure meeting with key representatives from the United Nations or some other humanitarian organization.
No matter what they’ve just endured, trainees must succinctly answer detailed queries, while asking essential questions of their own.
“You really have to stay focused,” says Morris. “You can’t be on autopilot. It was very taxing.” Even mundane tasks can take an unexpected twist, as when a police chief agrees to provide a necessary visa only if the trainees guarantee tents to police officers who have lost their homes in a flood, a violation of ShelterBox policy.
Along the way, trainees also acquire some advanced medical skills. “We get experienced medical providers to do really visceral training in a range of scenarios we hope to never experience,” says Jones. “But we know that if they do occur, our responders will be able to deal with them when they are on deployment.”
Another scenario, set at a temporary shelter, prompted an unexpected emotional response from an Australian woman whose learning curve demonstrated just how effective the ShelterBox training can be. That’s a story I can tell you.
Katelyn Winkworth inherited from her parents a zeal for performing good deeds. The president of the Rotaract Club of Brisbane Rivercity, the 27-year-old travels around Australia as a health promotion officer working with indigenous people.
“I go into rural communities, figure out some of the big health issues, and design programs to address those issues,” she says. “It can be pretty tough, but it’s rewarding.”
ShelterBox seemed a natural fit for Winkworth except for one problem: She lacked self-confidence.
“At every stage (of the vetting process), I thought, ‘I’m not going to make it through.’ And then I’d make it through, and then I’d think, ‘Not this round.’ When I got to the first day of (the four-day assessment) training, I thought: ‘No, I should just pack up and go home. This is stupid. I’m not going to be chosen.’”
Colin Jones understands how the assessment – and the Cornwall session – can be overwhelming.
“We run exercise after scenario after exercise that really pushes the candidates,” he explains. “After every exercise, we get them to debrief and offer feedback to each other, and that becomes second nature. Those who perform well are the ones who can take that feedback and use it the next time.”
That’s what happened with Winkworth.
“I’m not somebody who’s usually outspoken or opinionated or takes a lot of leadership,” she explains. “I spent the first day and a half (of the four-day assessment) wanting to contribute more but holding back. And then, on the second night, they gave me a large leadership position. It was actually then that I realized, ‘Oh, people will listen to me.’ Or, ‘I can make good choices that people will back.’ My self-doubt (receded) into the background. If I hadn’t been given that opportunity, I wouldn’t have realized that. I impressed myself. I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this, which is really lovely.’”
And that’s how she landed an invitation to Cornwall.
Midway through the course, Jones designated Winkworth as her team’s leader. “I struggled at first,” she recalls. “There’s fear, excitement, and a lot of anxiety when you’re responsible for a team and the direction it takes and the decisions that are made. We were really tired, and I found it very difficult to communicate clearly and concisely.”
But as the days passed and previously learned lessons kicked in, the team’s ability to collaborate improved.
“Being able to pull together in a group quickly is something that has to be learned,” Winkworth says. “We got better at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of our group.”
She also found herself emotionally engaged when her team visited a university repurposed as a temporary shelter for 500 people.
In this scenario, the space was overcrowded, bathroom facilities were inadequate, and there was little food.
“It really brought home to me what it’s like to be in the field, seeing distraught people who have had everything taken away from them: their families, the people they love, their homes. I got very choked up, even though it was a scenario,” she says.
Her response reveals Winkworth’s prime motivation.
“The concept that everybody has dignity is important to me, as is helping them retain their dignity on the worst day of their life,” she says. “To be able to take that into a disaster and enable people to take control of their life again – that’s something I admire and want to be involved in.”
After 10 long days, the training concludes. The ShelterBox candidates are exhausted, and, having subsisted over the past few days on meager rations called “rat packs,” they’re hungry.
The ordeal has taken a toll, and not just on the trainees. As he presents the candidates with their ShelterBox Response Team ID cards – because, yes, all of them have passed the final exam – Colin Jones appears to be holding back tears. His tough-guy veneer has vanished.
A few months later in Australia, Katelyn Winkworth awaits her first assignment.
ShelterBox dispatched Wes Clanton to Madagascar in January after a cyclone killed more than 50 people and displaced 54,000. And in late February, Ned Morris flew to the Dominican Republic and Barbuda to spend three weeks evaluating the response to hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“I’m nervous and excited,” he said before departure. “More important, I’m ready.”
“The concept that everybody has dignity is important to me, as is helping them retain their dignity on the worst day of their life."
Katelyn Winkworth, Rotaractor and ShelterBox volunteer