And, “It’s easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it’s leadership to be in the wrong place at the right time.” How important are these two mottos to you when building and recruiting your volunteer base?
Oh it’s so important. Because everyone is needed. At Ground Zero in New York in 2001, we just went on our own down there. We had a great bunch of nurses and paramedics and we were washing out firemen’s eyes. And we’d look up and there’s another hundred firemen. But FEMA kept coming around, they’re the official professionals in disasters apparently. And they come around and they say, “Oh no, it’s time for you to leave, thank you for your work, but it’s time for the professionals to take over.” We’d just look up at them and we’d nod our heads. And then we’d get down, keep working. They came around for four or five days and, “Oh we must tell you it’s time to leave,” and we’d just nod our head. They could see how much work we had. The very last time they came around they looked around to see if anyone was listening. They covered their badge and they said, “Please stay. Everyone’s needed.” We knew that, because people needed to bring the water in so we could drink, or bring in medical equipment or whatever we needed. There were iron workers, there were postal workers, there were electricity workers. Everyone was down there.
In the 2004 tsunami people would come through and they’d say, “Look, I don’t have many skills. I got rejected from the Red Cross.” And we’re like, “No, we will take you.” Because there was a need for people to hug the kids or do art with the kids or just get them water. Or get tonight’s food for the village. There’s always a role. And now we’ve even moved into a lot of online volunteering. If you’re at home with four or five kids and you want to volunteer, you can do it online for an hour. So the message of, “Everyone’s needed” is so important. And also about being in the wrong place at the right time. It’s easy to be stuck in some disaster. But I tell volunteers, “Look, come. And get your return ticket. And if you don’t like it, it’s okay! You can go home the next day.” But they don’t. They stay. And they say, “I don’t have many skills.” But then you see them out doing amazing stuff. Twenty thousand-plus volunteers; nobody ends up leaving. They stay and they blossom. And their lives have changed. They get back home, and they call me and they say, “I don’t fit back home into my job. I’m restless and things are weird.” And I’m like, “That’s amazing! Because your eyes are opened. You know what’s going on out there now and you know that you can make a difference.” So that’s behind our two mottos and we stand by them. Because everyone is needed.
So true. What would you tell people who are considering volunteering in disaster hotspots around the world?
There’s a whole grassroots system in place wherever you go in a disaster. From the Rotary, the Lions Club, all of those clubs are already in place. You’ve got universities in place. For example, in Puerto Rico we land, all the aid is stuck on the other side of the country off San Juan. All the boats are stuck. So we go to the other side of the island. We manoeuvred 100 big containers. Got straight to the people. We tapped into the universities. We got thousands and thousands of volunteers sitting around doing nothing from the local universities and that’s how it works. It’s this grassroots movement and we’ve combined with about 180 orgs we know throughout Miami and Florida. When hurricanes hit, we talk to each other. “What’s your strength? You’ve got the water filtration? Okay, we’ve got the solar lights.” And we’re working together. It’s not from the top down.
Fantastic. You’ve chosen possibly one of the toughest career paths a human could take. Outside of the horror that you see in these hotspots, what are the more positive and hopeful events you’ve witnessed amongst all the chaos?
There’s so much beauty left out there in the world, and we arrive and everything’s destroyed. And I know that I can always go home but they can’t. The volunteers are usually amazing because they’re all the same type of people wanting to give. And that’s the ultimate goal in life, giving to others, in service to others. I was training 100 troops last week and they were going off to the front lines, so it was a very sad day. ’Cause we got to know them so well. Coming back from that secret location, we were just crying in the car. And then we look out at the village and there was a lady teaching her daughter in a little red jacket how to ride a bike. A little three-wheeler. Yeah, life goes on. We won’t let this terror overtake us.