Kiwi of the year mobilizes world youth for disaster resilience
By Tricia Holly Purcell
GENEVA, 1 May 2013 - When college sophomore Sam Johnson started a Facebook page following the September 2010 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, to rally his peers to help affected communities, he never imagined that his idea would eventually mobilize an 'army' of young people across the country to take up similar efforts.
Nor could he have imagined that he and his growing force of student volunteers would play such a crucial role in the response to the February 2011 earthquake that leveled much of Christchurch.
Three years on, Johnson, founder of what has now become the 8,000-plus strong "Volunteer Army Foundation" (VAF), wants to build a global 'army' of young high school and university students committed to helping their communities to be safer and more resilient.
Now a senior year law student at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch and the 2012 Young New Zealander of the Year, Johnson wants to franchise the VAF model to mobilize a global youth movement that will advocate for resilient communities by promoting actions that reduce disaster risk, while maintaining a network of young people who can help communities and authorities respond to and recover from crises.
Visiting the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) in Geneva this week, Johnson described how the VAF coordinated with Christchurch City Council and National Civil Defense (New Zealand's equivalent of the United States' Federal Emergency Management Agency) following the 2011 earthquake to tap into the largely underutilized skills of student and youth groups.
From shoveling rubble and distributing food, to dispatching engineering students to help government officials assess earthquake damage, the VAF has gained nationwide recognition for its contribution to rebuilding Christchurch.
"Volunteering for us is a tool by which you, as a member of a community, help that community's growth and development," said Johnson, who was invited to Switzerland to attend the prestigious St Gallen Symposium, an annual event where "young leaders of the world" are recognized and given an opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the most influential figures in politics, business, technology, media and other decision-makers.
UNISDR Chief, Margareta Wahlström, congratulated Johnson on the VAF's successes to date and offered UNISDR's support in connecting with other youth groups and to build on the aspirations of the Youth Declaration signed by students affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. "As global political leaders, we must recognize the critical role young people can play in not only helping communities to recover post-disaster, but also in creating a culture of resilience and influence policies that will ultimately affect future generations," said Ms Wahlström.
To date, the VAF has clocked up more than 50,000 volunteer hours through a network of about 8,000 young people. It has also inspired similar initiatives among other community groups and charities across New Zealand, many of which had previously struggled to connect with a youth volunteer base. The VAF has 'Five Platoons", or areas of focus, which include a combination of projects that promote the efficient and green use of public spaces and land, environmental protection, and sound planning practices that transform negative space into positive space.
"People don't necessarily see young people --especially college and high school students--as playing an important role in communities," said Mr Johnson. "The VAF has helped to change perceptions that we can make a valuable contribution".