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All Hands: The Evolution of a Volunteer-Powered Disaster Response Organization

All Hands: The Evolution of a Volunteer-Powered Disaster Response Organization

by David Campbell, Catherine Fredman

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David Campbell's personal and professional life changed course in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004. A chance remark to a friend about the tragedy led his companion to reveal that he had dined, just a week prior to the tsunami, on a hotel patio where everyone had been killed. "In that moment," Campbell remembers, "a faraway event was brought


David Campbell's personal and professional life changed course in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004. A chance remark to a friend about the tragedy led his companion to reveal that he had dined, just a week prior to the tsunami, on a hotel patio where everyone had been killed. "In that moment," Campbell remembers, "a faraway event was brought much closer."

That meeting launched Campbell into action. After researching travel and lodging, he packed everything he thought he would need in a major disaster zone and boarded a plane to Thailand. But his most important asset was his vast network of friends in the technology industry and his decades of experience in businesses management. His colleagues and friends wanted to help and he wanted to help them do it.

Campbell didn't realize it at the time but he had stumbled on the key elements of what would become All Hands Volunteers, an entirely new kind of disaster relief organization: his own credibility, creative use of the Internet to make connections, and most importantly, the immeasurable power of "being there." ALL HANDS: THE EVOLUTION OF A VOLUNTEER-POWERED DISASTER RESPONSE ORGANIZATION shares the story of how, over the past ten years, Campbell and thousands of dedicated volunteers have personally and profoundly impacted the lives of people reeling in the wake of natural disaster.

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All Hands

By David Campbell, Catherine Friedman

River Grove Books

Copyright © 2015 David Campbell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63299-062-4


Being There

I could never have imagined that my first day in a disaster zone would include strapping on scuba gear and exploring one of the world's top diving destinations. There was concern that the tsunami had destroyed the coral reefs off Bang Tao, a significant tourist attraction for the village. Someone needed to find out how the reefs had fared, so I volunteered. We're all certified scuba divers in my family, so, for me, assessing the reefs for damage from the tsunami seemed worthwhile. That's where I intended to connect before I met Mike and the team at the Bang Tao base.

As it turned out, I didn't go diving. Once on base, I decided that I could make a bigger impact on land. I became Uncle Dave, the gray-haired advisor and go-between linking our sweaty, scruffy crew of volunteers and potential donors.

I decided to make Bang Tao my base, so I moved from the Meridien to the Laguna Phuket, a five-hotel complex managed by Andaman Resorts. The Laguna had high-speed Internet and, as part of their contribution to the tsunami relief effort, the resort management offered to let me stay at no cost. (This allowed me to add the money I would have paid for accommodations at the Meridien into my general donation pot.) Living in the hotel gave me access to a community of expatriates, as well as European and American tourists who had been vacationing in the area when the tsunami hit. Those connections dovetailed nicely with Mike Cegielski's local network that identified specific needs in the village.

Many of the local community's needs might never have made it onto the radar screen of large aid organizations, even though they were no less urgent and important. Take fishing boats, for example, which are necessary to Bang Tao's economy as a fishing village. The long-tailed fishing boats — big, heavy-hulled crafts with boat-length steering shafts that drive their propellers at one end and have four-cylinder automobile engines welded at the other — are sea-going vessels and expensive to build. The combination of hull, shaft, motor, and fishing nets totals $5,000 per boat; forty-three boats were destroyed in Bang Tao alone. Learning of the scope of the damage, I wondered, What will happen to these people?

Through the expat community, I met a British couple that had been sailing around the world when the tsunami struck. They were trying to identify ways to help. Ditto for a Dutch guy who had married a Thai woman and retired to Bang Tao. His wife spoke English and Thai and helped share the story of one fisherman and his family. The British couple communicated the fisherman's story to the Royal Thames Yacht Club, where they were members; the Dutch guy shared it with sailing friends in Amsterdam. Each community jump-started a series of cocktail parties — sailors love any excuse to drink and socialize — to raise the funds needed to begin replacing the fishing boats of Bang Tao.

Meanwhile, volunteers from all over the world were pouring into Phuket. One of these volunteers, with exactly the right skills at the right time, ended up in Bang Tao. Darius Monsef, a whiz at designing and building websites, really wanted to take part in the physical labor of clearing and rebuilding the village. It quickly became obvious that he could make more of an impact sitting at a laptop. He and other volunteers handily built a website for the Bang Tao Recovery Project, complete with stories from villagers plus photographs. Thanks to Pete Kirkwood, an American working in a nearby village, we were able to link with a 501(c)(3) banking account to collect tax-deductible donations from people around the world. From Bang Tao, we expanded into several villages, and Pete suggested what became our new name: HandsOn Thailand. Our website proclaimed, "We're here helping!" HandsOn became a beacon for those who wanted to do something more than write a check, and they followed our beacon to Bang Tao.


I soon learned that SUV has an entirely different definition in the philanthropic community: spontaneous unaffiliated volunteer. HandsOn attracted SUVs who may not have been part of an official aid group, but were not really unaffiliated. Each person I met connected easily to person after person after person. Our little network was expanding exponentially as people heard about what we were doing and told their friends. By the end of my first week in Bang Tao, we had twenty volunteers on site, and we expected twenty more to arrive the following week. I thought, If this were a venture-backed business, growing from twenty to forty people in a year, it would be considered high-growth. This is happening in one week!

Luckily, I'd experienced challenging times in the growth of a company. I began my career at IBM but then joined a very small company and helped grow it to more than four thousand employees. I was aware that many risks might not work out, but some would. I believe that you shouldn't shy away from making a risky move, but you shouldn't put all of your assets against it either. If it fails, you've tried and you can still recover. For thirty-five years, decision-making in the face of uncertainty had been my job. Now, it seemed that my entire career had prepared me for this moment.

As HandsOn Thailand expanded in scope, we also expanded in credibility. Nonetheless, our real street cred derived from the simple fact that we were there. You can't establish trust with people you don't know over the phone or via email. You must do it face-to-face. And you must use a language they understand. I'm not talking about English or Thai or French or Dutch. I'm talking about corporate-speak and volunteer-speak. I was fluent in both.

Since I was a volunteer, and I had experience being there, I understood others' motivations. I identified with the willingness to do whatever seemed most useful in the moment. Flexibility like this is a consistent characteristic among our volunteers. Perhaps more significantly, my gray hair inspired trust both from enthusiastic but inexperienced volunteers looking for a little guidance and potential donors searching for a project aligned to their hearts and wallets. That's how we ended up forging a link between a tiny fishing village in Thailand and a high-end American ski resort in Utah.

When the managing director of the Stein Eriksen Lodge at Deer Valley, one of the most luxurious ski resorts in the US, raised tsunami relief funds from clients, friends, and neighbors in the Park City area, he contacted the Amanpuri, a super-lux peer resort in Phuket, to ask where to donate the funds. Because it was such a large sum — $60,000 — he planned to travel to Thailand to evaluate their recommendation in person.

The Amanpuri folks had heard about HandsOn from their colleagues at Andaman Resorts and recommended our project to the lodge's director. Our guys had worked up a sleek PowerPoint presentation, printed some handouts, and organized a tour. The Stein Eriksen director saw an organization with a passionate and committed volunteer staff from all over the world and an American corporate style. He donated the entire $60,000 to us, knowing the money would be used effectively.

Big victories and innumerable smaller wins gave HandsOn the motivation to continue and the confidence that we were doing the right things the right way. Frankly, we could have been easily overwhelmed by a tsunami of despair. Often, it was easier to tackle the debris left behind by the waves than confront the shards of shattered lives — but sometimes you just couldn't avoid them.

Being There

One evening, a volunteer approached me. A Thai woman had come to her with a list of the things her few remaining family members needed, including a flashlight, hand puppets, and crayons. The woman had lost thirty-nine relatives in the tsunami. Imagining that poor woman's situation, I was overcome with a flood of emotions. I had to walk away because I didn't want to weep in front of this young volunteer, and I knew I was going to burst into tears. I grabbed the keys to our shared truck, hunted down a working ATM, withdrew $500 in Thai baht, and asked the volunteer to pass it on to the woman.

I'm normally an extremely pragmatic person with a very keen awareness of human reactions to money and power. But in Bang Tao, I found myself experiencing a wonderful suspension of cynicism. Every day, I focused on looking for the action that addressed a problem in the very real-world situation and then moved on to tackling the next problem. It was refreshing, but it was something much more, too. There was a sense of a secret being revealed — a secret breathtaking in its utter simplicity. When you show up to do good, people are motivated to help you. As Canadian clergyman Basil King famously said, "Go at it boldly, and you'll find unexpected forces closing round you and coming to your aid."

The way you prove your credibility is by being there. I cancelled my flight home twice before finally returning to Boston in mid-February. It was only three weeks after I had arrived in Thailand, but it seemed like a lifetime. The David who got off the plane at Logan Airport was a much different person than the one who landed in Phuket. From the beginning of my experience in Bang Tao, I'd accepted that our project was fundamentally transitional in nature. Our mission, as we eventually defined it, was to be on the ground providing immediate, essential support while larger organizations and the government prepared to bring their own capabilities to bear. But the commitment, effort, and pure compassion of our group and its supporters — some 323 people donated a total of more than $100,000 to our website — resonated for me long afterward, as powerful as it had been unexpected.

I wasn't the only one who felt that way. In June 2005, I received an email from Darius Monsef, the HandsOn website whiz. "That was the greatest thing I've ever done in my life," he wrote about our work in Bang Tao. "Can we do it again?' Two months later, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast.


From Bang Tao to Biloxi

I was planning to go to Darfur when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States.

In June 2005, as the genocide and refugee crisis in Darfur, in western Sudan, was unfolding, Darius Monsef called and asked, "Could we do it again?" We'd only been back from Bang Tao for a few months.

We discussed what had drawn so many dedicated volunteers, and I opined that the tsunami was, at that time, the worst disaster in the world. We speculated the refugee crisis in Darfur might now warrant that superlative. Our experience in Thailand and the recognition for what we had achieved there gave me confidence that we could raise money for just about any crisis, as long as we could offer a real solution to a real problem. We started making plans.

Back in Boston, I met with Dr. Larry Ronan, a staff physician at Massachusetts General Hospital who also works with a global emergency medical response group. As we discussed Darfur, an idea came to me. There were about seventy nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) helping in Darfur, but travel in and out of the area was dangerous. What if we could operate a no-charge charter service from safe, nearby airports using Internet-based planning to fill empty seats? Darius and I planned to accompany Dr. Ronan when he visited Darfur in early November. Meanwhile, Dick Clinton, a burly cop from Tennessee and fellow Bang Tao alumnus, had been in touch and added himself to our Darfur group on the basis that he could "cover our backs."

Mother Nature Changes Our Plans

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast with winds of more than 125 miles per hour and a storm surge of over 25 feet. More than one million people in the region were displaced by the storm, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) later called, "the single most catastrophic natural disaster in US history." It is also the costliest hurricane in US history; FEMA's estimate for the total damage came to $108 billion.

Darius, Dick, and I decided Katrina would drown out any fund-raising interest in our Darfur efforts. We tabled our trip to Sudan, committing to get to Darfur sometime in the future, and decided to respond to Katrina using the lessons we had learned in Thailand. We chose to take a three-pronged approach, based on our personal strengths and networks.

Dick started calling law enforcement contacts anywhere in the impacted area and eventually wangled an invitation from a Lieutenant he knew in the Gulfport, Mississippi, Police Department to stay in his home. This gave us access to their ad hoc emergency operations center,. Darius updated the HandsOnThailand website for a US response, including information for donors and volunteers. And I got us incorporated, applied for 501(c)(3) status, and set up checking accounts and an online donation portal. We officially launched on September 6, 2005.

One potential glitch arose: Darius wanted to jump in full-time but he had bills to cover. He had been a hero in Bang Tao, and I realized that our Katrina response had a better chance of succeeding if he could commit to being on-site full-time for the next few months. I agreed to pay him $1,000 a month. (Our compensation systems have evolved since then; we now pay key people a salary.) With the basic arrangements taken care of, we flew to Mississippi. We arrived in Gulfport, where we met Dick and some early volunteers, on September 7, 2005.

HandsOn USA was ready to go. Now we just had to figure out how we could help and where we could be most useful. To many, Katrina was synonymous with New Orleans. New Orleans was in the news every day — and the devastation there was epic. Levees had failed. Eighty percent of the city had flooded. FEMA later calculated that seventy percent of New Orleans's housing was damaged, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless and in dire need of food, water, and shelter.

Frankly, I was intimidated by the news coming out of New Orleans. The scale of the destruction was just too big for HandsOn. I thought we should find a town that matched our capabilities, a Gulf Coast version of the Bang Tao village, where we could forge personal connections and make a difference. I'd learned in Thailand that a natural disaster isn't confined to one town — there's plenty of damage to go around. And while some places get major attention from the media and government and nongovernment organizations, some only get minimal support. Most, especially the smaller and/or less notable towns, get little to none.

Gulfport Seemed Like a Good Place to Start

Dick Clinton's connection to the local police department became invaluable. Authorities have a well-founded suspicion of outsiders who show up after disasters. Are they looters? Are they scam artists who promise aid in return for "just a small down payment," then pocket the money and disappear? However, we quickly overcame suspicion because we were staying with a local policeman, and we were working with the police at their emergency ops center. We weren't viewed as strangers. And we were happy to show what we could do.

The police had been on twenty-four-hour duty since the hurricane hit, and they were stretched to their limit. They couldn't even take the time to address the needs of their own families. So, we started by helping the families of the on-duty police with their needs, like removing fallen trees and tarping roofs, among other things, and in the process gained their appreciation and trust.

We knew we couldn't make our host policeman's home the base of our operations. We needed a place that would be large enough to shelter and feed teams of volunteers, store our equipment, and park our vehicles. A hotel seemed like the appropriate venue, as it had been in Thailand. We were operating from what we knew, because we had used an affected hotel in Bang Tao. It had been under construction when the tsunami destroyed the first floor, including the lobby and offices, but the owner let us use the rooms on the second floor. But, when a Gulfport police family connection introduced us to representatives of the Beauvoir United Methodist Church in the neighboring town of Biloxi, we realized that this was not going to be the same as last time. The church became our home for the next five months.


Excerpted from All Hands by David Campbell, Catherine Friedman. Copyright © 2015 David Campbell. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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