ShelterBox Of Sarasota: Green Boxes Help People Cope With World Disasters

What connects Lakewood Ranch, an upper middle-class, tree-shaded planned community straddling Sarasota and Manatee counties south of Tampa, with poverty-stricken victims of natural disasters in Haiti, Pakistan and New Orleans?

Drinkable water, blankets, dishes, hand tools and tents.

The charitable ties that bind relationships across the world stretch out from a tucked away corner of the perfectly designed Lakewood Ranch business district, where ShelterBox maintains its U.S. headquarters for the British-based organization that ships supplies to create temporary homes soon after disaster strikes.

Most recently, ShelterBox employees and volunteers scrambled -- many working round the clock -- to ship supplies to victims of massive flooding in Pakistan.

July's monsoon-induced floods left 20 million people in Pakistan either injured or homeless. The floods significantly damaged the country's power infrastructure and washed away an estimated 2,433 miles of highway and 3,508 miles of railway. Flood waters destroyed more than 17 million acres of Pakistan's most fertile cropland and killed more than 200,000 livestock, putting the country at risk of a major food shortage that will likely affect its citizens for years. Some 25 percent of the population was already living in poverty before the flooding started.

Now, a shortage of clean drinking water poses an even greater threat of outbreak of diseases such as gastroenteritis and cholera.

Nearly 8,000 miles and a substantial socioeconomic divide away, volunteers from Lakewood Ranch's ShelterBox branch stepped up immediately to ship more than 9,000 tents, 10,000 water purifying LifeStraws, and 5,000 water containers to Pakistan. Another 1,000 boxes went out in August, with more to follow.

Filling An Otherwise Unmet Need

Founded in the United Kingdom in 2000 by Tom Henderson, a former British Royal Navy search-and-rescue diver, ShelterBox has provided aid in the wake of over 100 natural and man-made disasters in more than 70 countries in the past decade.

Providing shelter, warmth, comfort and dignity are the basic principles of the organization, whose founder noted that while food and medical attention are generally provided by international agencies in the wake of a disaster, basic shelter needs are often overlooked.

Valued at $1,000 each, a standard ShelterBox is a 49-gallon container measuring approximately 2 feet 3 inches X 1 foot 4 inches X 11 inches and weighing roughly 110 pounds. Packed within is an assortment of essential equipment designed to sustain life for up to 10 displaced people.

Each box contains a tent (custom made for ShelterBox by Vango, one of the world's leading tent manufacturers), ground mats and thermal blankets for basic warmth, a tool kit, cooking supplies (including a either a wood-burning or multifuel stove, pans, utensils, bowls and mugs, and water storage containers), means of water purification, and coloring books and crayons for children.

Even the sturdy green box itself is manufactured with ultimate utilization in mind.

Once unpacked, these lightweight, durable plastic containers are suitable for a variety of purposes from food and water storage to cribs for infants. Some ShelterBox recipients even use them as bathtubs.

Each box is individually packed by volunteers at the ShelterBox warehouse in Helston, Cornwall, UK, and is tailored to the nature and location of the disaster. For instance, boxes being sent to areas where malaria is prevalent are equipped with mosquito nets; in areas with harsh cold climates, extra provisions for warmth are provided.

In areas where schools also have been destroyed, ShelterBox will occasionally send additional blue boxes containing basic school supplies. After leaving Helston, boxes are shipped on commercial airliners and hand-delivered by rigorously trained volunteers who do field research to locate the families who are in the most desperate need of aid.

Spreading Response Efforts

ShelterBox is run almost entirely by volunteers who serve various functions. Along with packing boxes, volunteers are also trained in specialized areas such as disaster response and media representation. In the United States, for instance, roughly 200 ShelterBox volunteers are trained to give presentations, and about 150 trained response team members can be on site delivering boxes within as little as 24 hours after a disaster occurs.

Since its inception in the United Kingdom, ShelterBox has launched branches in 10 other countries, including the United States, whose volume of donations and volunteerism is second only to that of the UK.

The U.S. ShelterBox branch was initiated as a project of the Lakewood Ranch Rotary Club in 2002. The Lakewood Ranch team is working toward becoming the organization's largest fundraising arm by the year 2012. In the last fiscal year, the U.S. ShelterBox branch raised nearly $10 million, which is a 1,000 percent increase from the previous year. Within the first 6 months of 2010, the organization collected 20,000 new donors -- about 10 percent of which are from Lakewood Ranch and the nearby cities of Bradenton and Sarasota.

"To be perfectly honest," explains Alan Monroe, ShelterBox USA's communications manager, "Lakewood Ranch is a fantastic location for our headquarters. The greater surrounding area including Bradenton and Sarasota is a hotspot for charities."

The largest scale disaster relief project that ShelterBox has undertaken to this date is the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. More than 27,000 ShelterBoxes have been provided to displaced Haitian families, and response team members  remain actively deployed.

Putting Boots On The Ground

Beverly Hill of Sarasota has been deployed in Haiti four times since the earthquake. ShelterBox, she says, works with the Red Cross and United Nations on site.
 
"UN cluster groups meet once a week," she explains, "And we have a long-term ShelterBox representative who works with them to figure out how to get to the most vulnerable people. The elderly and infirm; women and children -- they're the ones that we try to get to first."

Volunteers work in teams of four to six people, and are usually split into pairs within those teams. One of the most important tasks, Hill says, is field research.

"We go out into the field to meet and identify the most vulnerable,'' she says. "We look to pastors and emergent leaders within the community to help us locate the people who are most in need of our assistance."

Response team members also gather individuals from the community and give demonstrations on how to set up and use the equipment provided by ShelterBox.

Other response team volunteers work as media liaisons, while others are logisticians. "Sure, logistics is less glamorous," says Hill, "but it's important. There's so much paperwork to be done; so many things that need to be signed going through custom. Without that paper work, these products would never get out of the warehouse and to the people who need them."

Over 92 percent of all donations are put specifically toward the production and delivery of the boxes. Each group or individual who makes a donation is given the unique tracking number of the specific box toward which the donation was placed.

Because the organization's goal is to respond to a disaster as quickly as possible, ShelterBox draws from its existing resources when disaster strikes instead of waiting for donations to trickle in. Therefore, donors are not given the option to choose which country their box is sent to, but the ShelterBox website does allow them to track their box and see exactly where in the world it has been sent.

Recognizing That More Could Be Done

Although Pakistan and Haiti currently claim the media spotlight, ShelterBox also has active deployments in Niger, Brazil and Guatemala in response to floods and tropical storms.

In addition to serving as the communications manager for ShelterBox in Lakewood Ranch, Alan Monroe is a response team member who can attest to the grueling work of a ShelterBox volunteer as well as the rewarding nature of the experience.

Having been deployed in Guatemala in the wake of Tropical Storm Agatha in June,  Monroe says "It was one of the best and toughest experiences of my life. A lot rests on our shoulders -- it's our responsibility to get those boxes to the people who are most in need. Our normal work day could be the worst day of someone else's life."

ShelterBox response team members make it their goal to accomplish the highest degree of humanitarian work in the shortest amount of time possible, and despite the number of people they aid, volunteers like Monroe always feel as if there's more to be done -- a sentiment that continues to drive the organization forward.

"You're there for such a short amount of time, and then you're back on that plane home and -- it kind of feels like you're still there," Monroe says. "The plane moves faster than your soul."

Jessi Smith is a Sarasota-based freelance writer working from the dark corner tables in various local coffee houses and bars. Working, that is, during the occasional lapses in time when she isn't strolling through art galleries with a finely honed look of feigned intellectualism or digging her toes deep into the perfectly powdered sand on Siesta Key. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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