Sam the man

by Janet Wilson / 18 April, 2011
You know you’re in Christchurch when a group of students turns up at your place and leaves it in a better condition than when they arrived. Janet Wilson talks to the motivating force behind the Student Volunteer Army.

At 22, he became the general of his own army. An army that at its peak mobilised 13,000 people a week. Now, having rallied and motivated the Student Volunteer Army to get stuck in and help after the Christchurch earthquakes, Sam Johnson is off to help rally a volunteer army in Japan.

“We want to make sure we’re not a burden,” he adds quickly. “The problem with disasters is that every Tom, Dick and Harry wants to help.”

Still not much more than a kid, Johnson has already proved it’s possible to provide effective help by harnessing the potent mix of social media with the desire of his generation to do good.

“I was always really keen on organising things,” says the boy brought up in rural mid-Canterbury’s Mayfield. The second of three children, Johnson moved to Christchurch with his mother after his parents split up. He was sent to board at Christ’s College but lasted two terms – “I absolutely hated that.”

But as a day boy his leadership skills quickly developed. He lists his seventh-form responsibility roll-call: head of drama, head of music, head of chapel and head of house. Not bad for a kid who says he always struggled academically. “I’m slightly ­dyslexic.”

It was the beginning of an apprenticeship of fund-raising and event management. “We organised a big Battle of the Bands in the seventh form and raised $11,000 for charity,” he says.

In the fifth form he realised he was gay, although he didn’t come out until he’d left school. “A lot of people meet me and don’t realise I’m gay,” he says matter-of-factly. “That’s almost my trick. I will get to know someone – and get to know them well – and really engage with them and then slip [my sexuality] into the conversation after the point.”

He says his parents are very supportive about it now. “It’s massive for any family to cope with,” he says. “They say they knew for a long time but when it actually becomes a reality and you tell everyone, that’s really hard.”

The boy who became a joiner of all things cultural at school continued the pattern at varsity where he chose a double major in law and science. Becoming cultural captain at College House in his second year honed his event management skills even further. At the start of last year Johnson realised a dream in producing an original musical, The Sinner­man.

Then the September 4 earthquake struck. He saw the havoc on the news. “After half an hour of watching, that was all the coverage they had and no more information. But on Facebook you could find out just so much more.”

Johnson was invited to three events that day – three earthquake after-parties – and he met a guy making T-shirts emblazoned with “I Survived the Christchurch Earthquake”.

“And I thought, ‘We can probably do better than that.’ And that evening I created the [Facebook] group Student Volunteer Base for Earthquake Clean Up. A stupidly complicated name. And that caused lots of problems because if it was a page, we could’ve carried on a lot longer. Because it was an event, the event stopped. It had a time-frame on it.”

He invited 200 of his mates to join. A movement was quietly born.

The next morning Johnson rang Christchurch City Council and Civil Defence and tried to register his fledgling band of volunteers, but he says he got lost in the call centre for half an hour.

“I quite like process,” he explains, “but seeing the process and saying, ‘Okay, how can I make that better?’ I’m big on efficiency. There’s nothing I hate more than mucking around and doing nothing. And that comes from the farming background and wanting to do things.”

His intentions weren’t always well received. He remembers doing a small reconnoitre the night after the first earthquake around silt-laden streets and getting a frosty reception from some of the residents. “They were unbelieving. They were like, ‘Well, that would be nice but it’s pretty unrealistic.’ “

He went home and posted the meeting point address on the Facebook page with instructions to “bring a spade and a wheelbarrow if you’ve got one; otherwise be prepared to door knock and ask for one”.

Johnson arrived at the meeting point the next day to find 100-150 people ­waiting. Yet organisation was haphazard. At 11.30am he realised “these guys are going to need feeding”. He bought ham, budget tomato relish and bread rolls at a discount from the supermarket and got a team to make them up.

More and more people kept arriving. “And we ran out of work by 12 o’clock. We finished this little suburb, these five streets that we were in. And it became the challenge: ‘Right, where are we going next?’”

The residents who had been cool beforehand were changing their minds about his student army. “Really genuinely thankful, almost unbelieving that strangers, people they’d never met before, nothing in common, were coming out there and helping and not wanting anything in return.”

At the time, Johnson was standing for the Riccarton-Wigram Community Board. Event-managing the musical made him realise there was no recognition for the positive things students do. “It was all about drinking, it was all about alcohol and anyone I ever met was like, ‘Oh, students are rubbish,’” he says. “And I came across the com­munity board and thought I’ll have a go at it. Every­one on it was over 60.”

Johnson won the seat by 8000 votes last October after Prime Minister John Key endorsed him, saying he would become prime minister one day. Johnson describes himself as “right of centre but quite centrist”, a member of the National Party but not the Young Nats. “I find them too extreme and some of their views I don’t agree with.”

He says, “There are people in Wigram right now who want me to stand at the next election”, but he hasn’t decided on that yet – although he already knows what it’s like to have public figures on the phone.

“Thankfully, Paula Bennett rang me one morning and said, ‘Sam, do you need some money to help with this?’ And I thought, ‘Hello, Paula Bennett.’” That chat resulted in a sorely needed $5000 Youth Development Grant. Johnson and his team of six cohorts also found Louis Brown from Te Wai Pounamu Found­ation, a social innovation charity. “He brought some really key resources, key mentoring, just to make it a lot bigger.”

In mid-January, the Student Volunteer Army (SVA) was born and was christened on Facebook with its own page.

Fast forward to February 22. Johnson was at the 10th Annual Emergency Management Conference in Wellington hosted by Civil Defence Minister John Carter. “Opening comments – wouldn’t it be funny if there was a disaster while we were all in this room?”

Johnson had just been told the Army had tried to shut his group down. Top brass were worried about “the risk of sending 500 students into a disaster zone. The pressure on cars, infrastructure, that sort of thing.” Then the news hit. There had been another quake.

He blagged his way onto a flight to Blenheim and drove down to Christ­church, arriving back at 3.30am. “And so I was posting that everywhere on Facebook.” That night the Student Volunteer Army Facebook page grew from 160 followers to 1000. Today it boasts 26,500.

The SVA had a clearer, more management-like structure this time. He admits to micromanaging the first day but the sheer numbers of those volunteering stopped that. The growing manage­ment team were given clear roles and guidelines. “And that was huge for the leadership as well, for their drive and responsibility. That was a big learning curve for me.”

As before, the SVA used the technology of GeoOP, a New Zealand-based online mobile management system. That meant the leadership could text their growing army with their location and have volunteers text them when they finished a job. A 50-strong call centre was set up to receive calls for help. Johnson called on a schoolmate who worked in IT to write code for the website, the “want to help/need help” button. The entire management team worked “10 or 12, sometimes 15 hours” a day. To cope, they would meet every night and talk. “They were simply two hours talking about feelings and how we were personally coping.”

Life is moving very fast for Sam Johnson. As well as sending him off to Japan, Global Dirt (Disaster Immediate Response Team), which acts as an intermediary between institutions and victims in disaster zones around the world, wants

Johnson and his colleagues, including fellow Japan team member Jason Pemberton, to set up volunteer structures in colleges across the US. “It’s very much up in the air,” Johnson explains, “and I’m probably going to spend my year writing down how this works, just documenting, extracting a blueprint from that to be used again.”

He ummed and ahhed about going back to university and considered taking this semester off. Finally, he decided to stay and finish his degree. “Feel very relieved with the decision,” he texted. “Gut feeling is a great thing, isn’t it!”

He says, “You get to that stage where you don’t rely on someone else’s advice because I think, ‘Now, what do I think in my core is right?’ And that’s what I go by.”

When will he go back to a normal life?

“I don’t think it will be normal again,” he says quietly, “I don’t think this is ever going to end. Christchurch for the next 10 years, my commitment is to Christ­church.”


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