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Students vs. The Machine: Lessons Learned in the Student Community Following the Christchurch Earthquakes

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Sam Johnson in tentWhen massive earthquakes hit Christchurch, New Zealand in February 2011, university students wanted to help in the clean-up. But established first response agencies were wary of these young volunteers and too harried to work with them, so they turned them away. Sam Johnson, a student leader, would not take "no" for an answer. He turned to Facebook and put out a call to his friends. Within hours, Johnson had recruited a team of workers and borrowed enough loaned equipment to go out and simply start “mucking out.” Over the next several days, as his social network spread the word, hundreds and then thousands of students stepped forward. They called themselves the Student Volunteer Army (SVA) and eventually numbered 9,000 volunteers, earning the respect and support of the local authorities along the way. The story of Johnson and the Student Volunteer Army eventually drew headlines around the world, and attracted the attention and praise of everyone from Prince William of England to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of the United States.  Because of the media attention SVA received, the student volunteers were invited to Japan after the tsunami hit to work with a like-minded team of students. And Johnson recently returned from the World Summit for Youth Volunteering in Colombia, South America, where he presented on the role of Youth in Disaster.

Today, SVA continues its work as the Christchurch area experiences aftershocks and further quakes. In this e-Volunteerism feature, Johnson shares what it’s like to be at the center of the growing emergency response momentum. He allows that he instantly had to learn volunteer management skills, describes how he successfully used social media tools, and reviews how others can connect to young people through online networks. And he explains his strong vision for “the positive change that can occur if technology at our fingertips is harnessed by Generation Y to build stronger community relationships.”