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‘People are kaitiaki’: Sam Johnson on the future of the Student Volunteer Army

Student Volunteer Army founder Sam Johnson. Photo/Martin Hunter/Listener

The Student Volunteer Army is carving out new territory that helps volunteers work with those in paid work.

Can you draw a comparison between the aftermath of a natural disaster and that of a mass shooting?

“We decided, yes, you can,” says Student Volunteer Army Foundation (SVA) chair Sam Johnson. “The same thing comes out of it – all that community goodness. Real change happens when there is sustained ongoing volunteering.”

The question was raised last July, eight months before New Zealand was swept from its complacent moorings by Christchurch’s mosque shootings. A group of 28 students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, were in the Garden City in the wake of the six-minute Valentine’s Day 2018 shooting spree at their school that killed 14 pupils and three staff members. Their question to the SVA: how do we keep a youth movement going – in this case, a drive for gun-law reform – after a tragedy has faded from the headlines?

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“It was an interesting parallel,” says Johnson now. “There are always people willing to help, but we never ask or we haven’t always asked in the right way. If you take any disaster, any crisis, the natural instinct is to help, but we suppress that.”

He describes a neighbouring Somali family who became active in the community after the earthquake. “But over the years, they retreated to their own lives.”

Wikipedia lists Johnson as an activist, his byline: “prominent social entrepreneur from Christchurch”. He swept and shovelled his way into the country’s gaze in the desperate days following the first Christchurch earthquake, in September 2010, after his offer of help was rebuffed by Civil Defence with an unequivocal “stay at home”. He set up a Facebook page calling for volunteers and, a few days and 150 students later, the Student Volunteer Army was born, rolling up to quake-hit neighbourhoods with spades, water, hot food, information and that most important of messages: that someone cared.

A memorial service for victims of the Parkland school shooting in Florida in 2018. Photo/Getty Images

“The silt didn’t really matter. It was more about that feeling of help, that cup of tea. Seeing the student buses drive past made people think, ‘Someone will help me.’ We didn’t – we helped a lot of people, but not on the scale of the whole city – but the whole city saw it, and that had a huge mental-health benefit.”

It earned the boy from rural Mayfield a handful of awards: in 2011, he received a Special Leadership Award from the Sir Peter Blake Trust, and in 2012, he was named Young New Zealander of the Year and Communicator of the Year. He travelled to Japan to help set up volunteering efforts after its devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, jived with the Duchess of Cornwall on Gap Filler’s Dance-O-Mat in Christchurch in 2012 and, in 2015, launched a humanitarian aid mission to help organise the construction of transitional shelters following earthquakes in Nepal. He is part of the Global Shaper Community set up by the World Economic Forum and is on the executive committee of the International Association for Volunteer Effort.

Johnson at a Christchurch remembrance service in 2012. Photo/Getty Images

Roll up its sleeves

In 2016, after sitting at his father’s hospital bedside, he and his partner, US environment scientist Tyler Brummer, founded Christchurch-based WeVisit, teeing up youth with a few spare hours a week to visit older people living alone or in retirement homes. It was a paid-for service, but one aimed at benefiting both parties through companionship, new skills and a few odd jobs on the side. In 2017, WeVisit merged with MyCare, a home-care service based on the Airbnb model of online trade.

Now, he’s returning his attention to the volunteer sector, looking at ways to broker that relationship between people who have time and those who need it. Under the new Community Guardians banner, the SVA has set up a primary-school badge-based programme in partnership with curriculum-resource developer School Kit to encourage children to take part in community activities. The programme has already reached 64,000 children nationwide. There is also a high-school service-badge and e-record programme to recognise volunteer work and a back-to-work job training and support programme for people receiving a mental-health benefit.

The SVA continues to roll up its sleeves for community and environmental work. Last week, 24 volunteers travelled to the West Coast to help with the clean-up after heavy rain spread landfill debris along 50km of coastline. But, as an adjunct fellow at the University of Canterbury, Johnson says there is still scope for more student engagement.

“Every year, we sign up 2500 students to the university SVA, but the actual number of people deeply engaged is about 500. So, we are changing the approach, and working more closely with the university to cater to demand from students, employers and the university.”

With Prince Harry in 2015. Photo/Getty Images

Now, Community Guardians has launched a new project, recognising the work of local people who already help out in their community. Johnson gives the example of an Akaroa woman who had been pruning roses on a nearby patch of public land for 20 years – until a paid contractor took over the job. “He said, ‘You don’t have to do it any more, you are not allowed to do it.’ Ahh! It is getting that culture shift across that people are kaitiaki of their area: we have to enable them to do it, not tell them to go away.”

Similarly, in Christchurch, Bryan Fairbairn had long been mowing the grass on about 16ha of Christchurch’s residential red zone, where he used to live. When the job was contracted out, he refused to stop.

Now, through a partnership between Community Guardians and infrastructure-maintenance company Citycare Group, he mows the red-zone lawns with all expenses paid.

Citycare’s strategy, marketing and business development general manager, Nige Cottingham, says the Community Guardians scheme intends to link “thousands of local community members nationwide to a safe, operational delivery model through Citycare and to ensure that local community projects are not just delivered, but also sustained for years to come”.

With Sir David Attenborough this year at a meeting of the UK’s all-party parliamentary group on the prevention of plastic waste. Photo/Getty Images

It is new territory, channelling the spirit of Lord Baden-Powell’s Scout movement, building on the work of current programmes such as Youth Service America and, in the UK, the Prince’s Trust charity, but also encompassing collaborative economic aspirations based on the sharing of underused assets or services.

Says Johnson: “Bryan’s an employee on zero pay and with all the health and safety training. That is what we are looking to broker. There are so many people doing things, but they have no sense of agency or permission. We are trying to make it easier to get that permission.

“At the core of the earthquake response, putting students in an earthquake-hit city was seen as a disaster, when actually you had 11,000 people wanting to help. So, how do we enable them to help? There are the same challenges now. It is seen as a headache, so we are designing a way that is not a headache: giving pre-job and on-the-job training and ongoing support for them to stay in the job. We are not saying we’ll start paying people to do it, we are saying, ‘How do we better support people who want to do it?’, because the well-being aspects that come out of it are so strong.”

He points to the number of retirees with time on their hands. “People are retiring at a very young age relative to our life expectancy, so finding a way of bringing meaning and purpose to that age is important. There are 3500 people on the mental-health benefit in Christchurch who are eligible for our programme. To work with 10% of those would be huge. But if you just went to Citycare and said, ‘Is there anything for me to do in a park?’, the answer would be, ‘No, all done, lawns mowed, weeds pulled.’ But they may not have built a community garden yet. We are saying, ‘Okay, if we have some volunteers, if they want to do something there, why not make it easy?’”

At home with his fiancé, Tyler Brummer. Photo/Getty Images

Mozzie on a hippo

It is a nervous space, a kind of “hybrid market” between the volunteer sector and the labour market in which people can be compensated for their work through rates rebates or paid expenses. But it is a space open to accusations of monetising the volunteer sector and/or undermining the paid sector. Is he putting paid people out of work?

“We’re not. It’s a mosquito on a hippopotamus. If somebody is looking after a local park every week as part of their everyday world, and that is saving a contractor money, what is the equitable way to recognise that person providing that service without undercutting volunteer-sector or paid workers? There is a hybrid model where you look at the way contracts are done to enable local people and groups to do things, as well as the big contracting companies.”

It is not, he says, just about volunteering. Rather, it is about using community activity to increase social connections. “We don’t want that momentum to disappear.”

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.