ShelterBox. Australia, You Light Up My Life!

LOS BAÑOS, LAGUNA – After a disaster, ShelterBox gathers people, shelters, warms, comforts and lends them dignity and, surprise: It glows? From out of that green box has come this gray domed tent, and here it glows in this beautiful, cloudy afternoon at 1628 hours of Tuesday, 06 October above Tadlac Lake, near the University of the Philippines Los Baños, below legendary Mount Makiling and above historic Laguna Bay some 50 km south of humbled Manila in the Philippines. They have been distressed by the fury of Ketsana. Yellow for hope. Thank God for the green ShelterBox!

Inside the domed tent, wrapped around that glow, you can also see the soft glow in the faces of the women, the glow of hope, the glow of renewed enthusiasm for life. The light. Isn’t it enough to fill everyone’s heart? I'm a stranger here, and it certainly fills mine.

Now then, further thinking out of the box, I would like international star Charice of the Philippines with her gift of song to sing for the refugees of all countries gifted with their own ShelterBoxes:

You Light Up My Life
(Whitney Houston)

So many nights I sit by my window
Waiting for someone to sing me his song
So many dreams I kept deep inside me
Alone in the dark but now you’ve come along.


And you light up my life
You give me hope to carry on
You light up my nights with song.


Rollin’ at sea, adrift on the water
Could it be finally I’m turning for home?
And finally, a chance to say, ‘Hey, I love you.’
Never again to be all alone.


‘Cause you, you light up my life
You give me hope to carry on
You light up my days
And fill my nights
Fill my nights with song, with song.


You give me hope to carry on
You light up my days
And fill my nights with song.


It can’t be wrong, when it feels so right
‘Cause you, you light up my life.
My life, my life, my life, oh!


So now, ShelterBox has a theme song, as it were. In any case, in a ShelterBox tent, if you were a disaster victim, I am sure you will feel like singing, beyond smiling.

A ShelterBox is designed for rapid response. I have a rapid response to a scene myself; as my own photographer, I simply look, look, look and just click, click, click. I did not plan this photograph you see here; it was in fact the 23rd to the last of the 399 images I took Tuesday, 06 October, starting at 1300 hours in the Philippines, no flash - I shot it P (Programmable) with my Canon PowerShot A540, digital, 6 MP. They don’t make cameras like they used to anymore, but the amateur in me likes the ease of handling the A540; and no, I don’t like firing-squad shots either. Did I compose the scene? Yes, on the fly - that's what you get from experience; I learned to love amateur photography 34 years ago and, with inexpensive digital cameras, the love exists - I learned to love writing 42 years ago and, with the advent of the inexpensive personal computer and the Internet, the love persists. One of the great camera lessons to me (from the genius of the one and only Mao Chanco) was to move angle to angle and take shot after shot, and I do that until my fingers hurt. I have a candid camera; I insist on the candid shot. I don’t ask people to pose for posterity, much less ask them to smile. The smiles you see are from the heart; the women are savoring their first few minutes inside a gift package that came out of that green box, a ShelterBox from Australia. Their faces light up.

But why does my photograph show only women? On one hand, they just happened to be the first to be there and I just happened to be there when they were. On the other hand, I think the presence of women first in a ShelterBox tent suggests that the concerns of women should be the priority in a disaster, after rescue - and ShelterBox is perfect for them, as it provides them tools and utensils for cooking, and takes care of other immediate women concerns: for the family to sleep without being bothered by mosquitoes, or cold weather; for the family to enjoy safe if not fresh water; for the family to keep the rain out if they have to leave the tent; for the family of 10 to gather and sleep together and feel safe in one snug place. Family is important, very important. Thank God for women!

ShelterBox is a Rotary Club Global Project (see shelterbox.org) that began in the mind of Tom Henderson of the Rotary Club of Helston-Lizard in Cornwall in the UK. The box is a treasure chest; this one I saw in Tadlac came with cooking pans, spoons, bowls, mugs, water storage containers, mosquito nets, raincoats, tools, thermal blankets, and a children’s pack (crayons, colored pencils, notebook, a reading book, ruler and triangle), all in their proper bags. ShelterBox assures us that every item is durable, practical, and brand new. Except for food, ShelterBox can help a family survive for at least 6 months (ShelterBox Denmark, blogovate.typepad.com). In other boxes, depending on request, you get a multi-fuel cooking stove that can burn anything from diesel to old paint. The water storage containers are for keeping a good supply of safe drinking water, contaminated water being an imminent danger after a natural disaster. Health is important, very important.

They brought the ShelterBoxes to Tadlac: Peter Pearce, of the ShelterBox Response Team, SRT Australia. Lizzy Treglown, SRT UK. They were dispatched to the Philippines immediately after Super Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy for Pinoys), and before the threat of Super Typhoon Parma. They were horrified by what they saw. Lizzy was quoted as saying (ShelterBox Denmark):

The conditions here are appalling; the evacuation centers are overflowing and it’s very tough. Much more rain is expected and is going to make things worse. (And yet) people are still smiling, gracious and hospitable despite the terrible situation. There’s a huge need for our ShelterBoxes and over the next few days we’ll continue to do the most for the most.’

That's Filipinos for you. Even while we are hurting, we can turn a national disaster into an international joke.

In Tadlac, with Peter and Lizzy were Jen Kormendy, SRT Canada, and Kim Kim, SRT USA - he was the one instructing the locals how to set up a tent; those boys will have to do the next tent, and the next, and the next. They set up 5 tents that afternoon. And here's another insight - I love it that you can't set up a tent alone; you need a team. The ShelterBox not only quickly builds a home; it also quickly builds a family of survivors who are sure to think, if not tell each other, right from the beginning, 'We are all in this together.'

The SRTs are working closely with fellow Rotarians in victim countries. So, in Tadlac, around to lend a helping hand and a smile were the locals of Rotary International District 3820: Chit Lijauco, District Governor. Geoff McLennan, Past DG. Mike Lirio, Past DG. Bobby Bautista, President of the Rotary Club of Los Baños, 2009-2010. Binoy Flores, Asst Sec. Danny Mercado, Past President. Gil Fernandez, Past President. Pat Santos, Past President. Romy Quintana, Past President. By the time of the coming and setting up of the tents, when I was invited, those guys had already decided on the Tadlac families to receive ShelterBoxes.

If you're coming from Manila, Los Baños is next to the City of Calamba; the ShelterBox relief area is in Tadlac, right next to Tadlac Lake, which lies between Los Baños and Calamba. ‘The need exists,’ says ShelterBox, ‘and the need persists throughout the world.’ Disaster knows no territorial boundaries; relief knows no territorial limits. ShelterBox deserves boundless thanks. Help is important, very important.

Another way of looking at it is that each ShelterBox is a Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritans do what they can to help, loving God as much as they can, and their neighbor as much as they do love themselves (Luke 10: 25-37). But who is the neighbor to the neighbor? Jesus asked the lawyer. And the lawyer answered, 'The one who showed mercy.' So Jesus said, 'Go and do likewise' (Luke 10: 37 NRSV).

Today, if you travel anywhere in the Philippines, you will probably meet disaster; not yours but theirs. After Super Typhoon Ketsana (Pinoy name Ondoy), the Philippines suffered one of the worst geographical calamities it has ever encountered, where millions of dollars of property were destroyed, hundreds of lives lost, and hundreds of thousands of families shattered. It is 2 weeks after Ketsana (see also my ‘Ketsana Madness. Marikina? A river runs through it,’ americanchronicle.com); if your home is underwater, or has been swept away by the raging overflow from a river or by a flashflood, you will appreciate that a ShelterBox is a godsend, a gift from heaven, and since it comes quickly, a gift outright. You can rest assured. The tent is custom-made by Vango, one of the world’s leading tent makers; it can withstand extreme temperatures, heavy winds and rains. It’s a survival box in itself, and it's easy to set up. ShelterBox the organization is now an international disaster relief charity, and its ethos is, ‘Keep it simple. Do it now.’

Thank God for Tom Henderson, who first thought of coming up with a ShelterBox (ShelterBox Shelter Report 2009); he narrates:

The idea crystallized in 1999 whilst (I was) watching a news report of yet another natural disaster and seeing loaves of bread being unceremoniously and unnecessarily thrown from the back of a truck. It struck me as an undignified way to support these people. I thought about my own family and what we would need in that situation. I asked myself why, when you’ve lost your home, should you lose your dignity as well?

And with that, Tom had an insight:

There seemed to be a void in emergency shelter provision. Medicine and food were always a priority, but what about protection from the elements? Without it, chances of survival plummet. So I developed this immediate home in a box.

With Tom's ingenuity and pluck, ShelterBox was launched in April 2000 and Tom's Rotary Club of Helston-Lizard in Cornwall adopted it as its millennium project. The very first shipment, 143 boxes, went to the earthquake victims of Gujarat State in India in January 2001 (ShelterBox.org).

On 30 September 2009, ShelterBoxes headed for Manila. The ShelterBoxes that went to Tadlac came from Down Under. In February 2009, ShelterBox Australia raised its 5,000th box; today, it continues to actively recruit SRT members and send them to the field following devastated homes and downgraded hopes.

ShelterBox's core partner is Rotary International. Business figures and leaders in their places, Rotarians are able to calculate the magnitude of a disaster, advise ShelterBox what has happened, pinpoint where the worst damage has occurred, and determine what help is necessary. They can also get the SRTs and ShelterBoxes into the country quickly, gently avoiding red tape, and taking good care of the SRT members, who are volunteers.

Along with Tom Henderson's oral advocacy must come dollar advocacy, by many thousands of donors who make ShelterBox physically possible. ShelterBox spends as much as 92% of its income directly for those in need, and they are legion. They need more donors. You can donate if you have the heart of a neighbor and the pocket of a Good Samaritan. The cost of a complete ShelterBox is Au $1,200, or UK £490, or US $1,000, including delivery. If you think of the lives rescued and hopes saved, that's peanuts.

ShelterBox's HQ is in Cornwall; today, it has 9 affiliates: ShelterBox Australia, ShelterBox Canada, ShelterBox Denmark, ShelterBox France, ShelterBox Germany, ShelterBox Japan (the newest), ShelterBox New Zealand, ShelterBox Switzerland, and ShelterBox USA.

Here are the ShelterBox HQ & affiliates (dates formed) & available websites / email addresses:
UK (HQ launched 2000): info@shelterbox.org
USA (formed March 2002): info@shelterboxusa.org
Australia (June 2003): info@shelterboxaustralia.org.au
Canada (Dec 2003): info@shelterbox.ca
Germany (July 2006): http://www.shelterbox.de/ (can't find email)
New Zealand (November 2006): info@shelterbox.org.nz
Denmark (May 2007): shelterbox@shelterbox.dk
France (August 2008): info@shelterboxfrance.org
Switzerland (January 2009): http://www.shelterbox.ch/ (can't find email)
Japan (2009): (can't find website, email).

Since 2001, ShelterBoxes have been sent to more than 80 catastrophes in more than 50 countries. In 2008 alone, nearly 12,000 boxes went to disaster areas, double the number of 2007. As of 2100 hours Wednesday, 07 October 2009, the website count of boxes is 54,550; as of January 2009, there have been more than 700,000 disaster victims directly aided with ShelterBoxes.

Every ShelterBox has its own unique number, so you can check online where your personal box has gone to whom in which country. If you donate and send your mailing address as well, you will be sent a tax-deductible receipt, with the number of the box your donation went to. So, as the giver, you can relate to the receiver of your gift. As in, 'It's an amazing feeling,' says David Glover of ShelterBox, 'to see photos of the very boxes we'd paid for, arriving in Bangladesh.' Saving lives.

The ShelterBox is a modern magic box, believe it or not. The staff of the international relief agency Feed the Children have called the ShelterBox 'the best disaster relief tool they have seen in their 20 years of experience' (shelterboxusa.org). It is a box that gathers people, shelters, warms, comforts and lends them dignity - and it glows in hope. Now we know that the ShelterBox has a price tag; now we know that it is also priceless.

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