Friday, June 6, 2008
Carlisle-based Hands On responds to disasters
From his home office on River Road overlooking the Concord River, David Campbell runs his non-profit organization called Hands On
Disaster Response (HODR). Parked nearby is a mobile rescue vehicle, a retired ambulance painted with the HODR logo and web site address that serves as the “Mobile command unit #4” for domestic rescue missions. HODR is a volunteer, nonprofit organization with 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, dedicated to timely disaster response and relief around the world. To date HODR has been at local disaster sites in New Orleans, Gassville, Arkansas, and international sites in Thailand, Indonesia, Peru, the Philippines and Bangladesh.
Originally from Buffalo, New York, Campbell and his wife, Gay, moved to Massachusetts 12 years ago when he became the president of BBN Technology in Cambridge. Knowing that her husband’s job involved extensive travel, Gay restricted their house search to within 50 miles of Logan Airport. They were particularly attracted to Carlisle for its rural and scenic views, and they “liked the way the streets were laid out.”
The creation of HODR can be traced back to December 2004, when the tsunami hit Thailand. David was in West Berlin and Gay, a freelance photographer, was on a photo shoot in Africa. When David heard of the disaster, he took off for Thailand, initially writing to his wife that he would be there for a week. The week turned into two weeks and longer. Gay was worried and wondered, “if he was becoming a monk after being a business man!”
How it all started
The widespread damage that the tsunami brought stunned David and compelled him to put his skills to use. “I was running a company involved in technology and that understanding motivated me to create a Web site to make it easy for volunteers to find us,” he explained. “The web site, which was step one of the operations plan, was successful,” he said. “It drew hundreds of people eager to be of assistance. The second step was to figure out what to do with these volunteers.” This is when his decades of business experience came in handy. He accepted all volunteers, spent time to understand what each one brought to the table and matched the community’s needs with the skills and wishes of the volunteers. Although this demanded organizational skills, doing it this way allowed each volunteer “to feel that they were doing something productive, and it also met the needs of the community.”
Gay pointed out that her husband, who is well experienced in managing a rapidly changing business environment, was able to seamlessly manage the changing demands in a catastrophic situation. Prioritizing needs is also crucial, requiring someone to be onsite at the disaster to assess the needs and ascertain that the organization’s efforts are focused on the most urgent areas. After three months, David delegated this onsite management work at the tsunami site to an operations director whom he hired and paid through a combination of his own money and contributions to HODR. The director maintained the continuity of the operations from a small village called BangTao in Phuket.
The process of helping
Since the first relief effort in Thailand, the same model was adopted in all of HODR’s operations, including Peru, New Orleans, Philippines, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Once a decision is made to help in a national or international disaster, the operations director will be sent onsite to evaluate the situation. He assesses the critical tasks in hand, and estimates resources and the duration needed to complete these tasks. The tasks could be as complex as rebuilding homes and reconstructing dams, or as basic as stuffing backpacks with school supplies for kids. The operations director also secures a home for volunteers to stay in and makes sure there are computers with Internet access, allowing the volunteers to stay connected with their loved ones back home.
Typically a relief effort is planned for four months; volunteers can choose to stay for any length of time, but are encouraged to take a break every three to four weeks for physical and psychological reasons. Volunteers pay only for their travel expenses, the rest is usually covered by HODR. They stay in prearranged accommodations and share household chores, including cooking meals. They work six days a week, sometimes on their day off. Occasionally HODR hires local help for cooking and cleaning and uses interpreters at international sites. After being onsite for a while, HODR volunteers are recognized by their T-shirts and the word spreads. They begin to make friends with the local residents and are welcomed into their homes for lunch and dinner. Often the locals will jump in to lend a helping hand.
Dedication of the staff
In a world where even high salaries and bonuses cannot keep people motivated, the Campbells are very thankful to their very small staff that is paid a nominal salary but shows outstanding dedication. Gay considers them “more like missionaries.” They travel anywhere in the world on less than 24 hours’ notice. David recalls their work at the Peru disaster site in August 2007, when the operations director was pivotal in keeping hundreds of volunteers productively engaged. He also hired two support persons on a stipend and recalls that, “in addition to working really hard, they used their pay to buy supplies for building houses.” With many disasters occurring simultaneously, David admits, “We do stretch ourselves too thin” but HODR is working with the staff towards handling multiple sites concurrently.
While there have been hundreds of people from across the world supporting HODR efforts, the Campbells are particularly happy to get help from Jo-Ann and David Driscoll of Fiske Street. Jo-Ann, who is employed full-time, has been using her vacation time to help out at many disaster sites. She shared her story on the Peru effort in the November 30, 2007, Mosquito.
David Driscoll is retired and spends long stretches of time at site; he was with the helping hands at New Orleans, Indonesia, the Philippines, Peru and Bangladesh. The “minimal bureaucracy” and the efficiency of the HODR operations continue to gain the active participation of volunteers like David Driscoll who is currently in Newton County, Missouri. He summarizes the volunteering effort as “a Peace Corps experience without the two-year commitment.”
Micro-deployment to Newton County, Missouri
For HODR, a micro-deployment is in place for up to 30 days. Six days after tornados struck parts of Oklahoma and Missouri, HODR arrived in Newton County, Missouri on May 16, 2008, and began assessing the damage and needs. HODR has partnered in Neosho with AmeriCorps St. Louis’s Emergency Response Team (ERT). Camping out at a former armory in Neosho, David Driscoll notes that he and other volunteers “are emptying and demolishing homes, rebuilding roofs, cutting huge trees and repairing fence lines so farmers can get their animals back.”
Disasters in Myanmar and China
Cyclone Nargis has left Myanmar with tremendous devastation, yet HODR, like many relief organizations, cannot get there because of the dangers of working onsite with a tourist visa, an arrestable offense. If the Myanmar government relaxes its rules, HODR could have an opportunity to help there soon, especially since they are onsite in China.
On May 30 a HODR team leader arrived in Chengdu, China, to assess the damage from the earthquake and consult with other relief organizations. Two other team members should arrive today. “We are attempting to gather as much information as we can about the NGO and government response,” said David Campbell in a Web update. “We hope to determine soon if the type of assistance that HODR can provide is needed and would be accepted.
Being the founder and executive director of HODR fulfills David Campbell’s “sense of purpose” and for Gay volunteering “is a growing experience.”
For more information on HODR, visit them at www.hodr.org. ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito