Student Volunteer Army

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The Student Volunteer Army (SVA) is a student movement born from a Facebook page started following the Christchurch earthquakes. The network has no military affiliation and is focused on facilitating community action through youth engagement, preparing for disasters and service.[1] The clubs and volunteers are supported using tools provided by the Volunteer Army Foundation (VAF).

There are now three student volunteer clubs that have grown directly from the Christchurch Student Response; the UC Student Volunteer Army,[2] the Wellington SVA,[3] and the Otago Polytech Scarfie Army[4] together with school students across New Zealand actively getting involved in their communities as happened in Christchurch.

History - disaster response[edit]

September 2010 Christchurch earthquake[edit]

In the days immediately following the September 4 Christchurch earthquake, while the university's Ilam campus was closed to enable the buildings to be checked for structural safety, 21-year-old Sam Johnson started a Facebook event called the "Student Base for Earthquake Clean up[5] " and invited friends to join with him in assisting local residents with non-lifesaving tasks, in particularly cleaning up soil liquefaction residue on the streets and gardens of the city.

Johnson invited 200 friends to the event which soon grew to have over 3000 attendees and over 2500 volunteers contributing to the clean up.[6]

In an effort to continue the momentum of the initial cleanup, Johnson and the key organisers of the student initiative, Jade Rutherford, Gina Scandrett, Chris Duncan, Tommy Young and Sam Gifford,[7] decided to work with the University of Canterbury Students Association President Kohan McNab[8] to create a student club focused on student volunteering; named the UC Student Volunteer Army.

February 2011 Christchurch earthquake[edit]

The devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake again struck Christchurch at 12.51 on 22 February 2011, causing widespread devastation and destruction. 185 people were killed, thousands of homes were damaged, and hundreds of buildings were uninhabitable. Johnson and the six original team members of the Student Volunteer Army teamed up with the University of Canterbury Student Association team, led by President Kohan McNab, Louis Brown from the Te Waipounamu Foundation, Nathan Durkin and Anthony Rohan from White Elephant Trust together with student clubs ENSOC, LAWSOC and MUSOC.

The February operation of the Student Volunteer Army was managed by a core team of 15 people and a wider administration of 70 people who managed the three core operations which the SVA focused on; battalions, squadrons and street teams.[6]

The mass deployment of volunteering, dubbed ‘Battalions’, was the initial focus which saw a maximum of 1000 volunteers, fed, watered and allocated to the worst affected areas of Christchurch via charter buses. Squadrons filled a similar role, except instead of students combing the streets and methodically searching for work, the squadrons responded to requests from individuals for assistance that came via the website, call center, and partnerships with Civil Defence and city councils. Up to 450 car loads of students were allocated via this system, using a mix of software, texting, and Google mapping. Street teams managed volunteer engagement for various organizations including multiple government departments, Civil Defence, and Christchurch City Council.

"The objective was to increase the efficiency in agencies providing a service; for example delivering chemical toilets and information pamphlets, laying sandbags, staffing data entry and manning call centres. While the perceived focus was on shovelling silt, what mattered most was the intergenerational connection being created and the conversations that occurred between residents and students. Nothing beats a friendly face to talk with.Two of the greatest challenges faced after both earthquakes was locating the areas where volunteers were most needed, and prioritizing the work load. With the help of and Snap Internet, Jonas Bergler and his team designed a mobile management system for the Squadrons whereby residents could register their need for assistance via a free call number, text message service or website.[9] Each job was examined and prioritised by the call centre, manned by the Musical Theatre Society.In delegating team leaders to guide small crews to these sites the SVA, together with the Federated Farmers Farmy Army, helped clear over 360,000 tonnes of silt and clocked up over 80,000 volunteer working hours. The Facebook page had over 26,000 followers and continued to act as a platform to organise and coordinate volunteers Christchurch communities throughout 2011 following the June earthquake, and the shake of the 23rd of December."[6]

The team worked to increase the efficiency of distributing chemical toilets and pamphlets, as well as manning call centers.[10] The student group become known as the Student Volunteer Army, with the Volunteer Army Foundation being the supporting Charity focused on disaster preparedness, youth engagement and service.[11]

StudentArmy IlamSchool

A strong focus was also placed on the well-being of residents in the harder hit areas. Volunteers were encouraged to be an cheerful presence on the streets, offering food, drinks, and assistance in finding professional help.[10] Johnson and the other members of the Student Volunteer Army were highly visible and featured in much of the news reporting of the earthquake. Organised using Facebook, and social media, the concept enabled thousands of students and residents of Christchurch to make a contribution to those most affected by the devastating earthquakes. At its peak, there were 13,000 students volunteering per week.[12] The team of organisers received high praise from officials in New Zealand and this resulted in them speaking with Prince William about the potential programmes of volunteering involving young people.[13]

Japan and New York[edit]

Shortly after the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, Japan experienced a large earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant meltdown. Global DIRT asked Sam Johnson and Jason Pemberton, both of the SVA, to help organize Japanese university students develop a similar volunteer program.[14] Additionally, Global DIRT asked Jason Pemberton and fellow SVA team member Jackson Rowland to help New York City recover after Hurricane Sandy.[15] The Volunteer Army Foundation now focuses on disaster response, preferring to help communities prepare and become more resilient to disasters.

History - disaster preparedness[edit]

UNESCO Youth Beyond Disaster Forums[edit]

SVA Founder Sam Johnson chaired the planning committee for the inaugural "Looking Beyond Disaster's" (LBD). LBD is an initiative of the NZ National Commission for UNESCO in partnership with the Bangkok UNESCO Office and the UNESCO Office of the Pacific in Apia. The focus of the program is to bring together young people who have experienced natural disasters in the Asia Pacific region to share disaster experiences and develop realistic action plans to rebuild communities that meet the needs and aspirations of young people.

The LBD network has grown with forums being held in Auckland (Pacific)[16] and Sendai, Japan.[17] In 2013 there will be forums in Indonesia[18] and Kobe, Japan.


In 2012 the Volunteer Army Foundation created an initiative designed to lure youth into experiencing volunteer activity, based on RockCorps.[19] On Saturday the 3rd or November, 2012, hosted a 10 hour music event at the New AMI Stadium in Addington, Christchurch. The catch? The only way to get a ticket was to volunteer at least four hours of time on any one of over 900 volunteer projects and events advertised through the custom built website. The functionality of this website now still exists in the ‘Get Involved’ section of the volunteer army foundation website

8,000 tickets were sent out to individuals who contributed to over 50,000 hours of volunteering.

24 of New Zealand's best bands all volunteered their time for the event organised by Jonnie Halstead of Picnic Events.[20]

The 50,000 hours of volunteering were contributed her Majesty the Queens's Diamond Jubilee project called the 'Jubilee Hour'.[21] Johnson was invited to speak on behalf of the Volunteer Army Foundation at the House of Commons in London at the Official Celebration of the Jubilee Hour being one of the major contributing organisations.[22]

Volunteer Army Foundation[edit]

The founders and key committee members from the February earthquake response team have since founded the non-profit Volunteer Army Foundation. VAF oversees, licenses, and trains all SVA chapters and shares, promotes and supports those interested in creating their own volunteer movement. Any interest in creating a branch of SVA should be expressed to them.[23]


  1. ^ "Volunteer Army Foundation » Youth Engagement, Disaster Preparedness, Service Learning". 2013-08-13. Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  2. ^ "Home". 2012-02-19. Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  3. ^ "Student Volunteers Rally Around Wellington | Scoop News". 2013-07-24. Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  4. ^ "Student Volunteers, Dunedin, New Zealand". Scarfie Army. Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  5. ^ "Student Volunteer base for Earthquake clean up". Facebook. Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  6. ^ a b c "» About » Volunteer Army Foundation". 2010-09-04. Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  7. ^ "Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) : 14 September 2010". Retrieved 2013-12-02. 
  8. ^ Tina Law (2011-12-31). "Kohan McNab | It's A New World For Students". Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  9. ^ "GeoOP Powers Student Army, Providing High Tech Aid to Volunteers". Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  10. ^ a b "History". Student Volunteer Army Incorporated. Retrieved 13 April 2012. 
  11. ^ "Volunteer Army Foundation » Youth Engagement, Disaster Preparedness, Service Learning". 2013-08-13. Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  12. ^ "Sam the man". New Zealand Listener. 18 April 2011. Retrieved 14 July 2011. 
  13. ^ "Prince William: 'Grief is the price we pay for love'". TVNZ. 18 March 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  14. ^ MCKENZIE-MCLEAN, Jo (11/05/11). "Japan to Use Christchurch Volunteer Model". Retrieved 21 August 2013.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  15. ^ "Quake Volunteers Help with Sandy Clean Up". The Press. 15/11/12. Retrieved 21 August 2013.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  16. ^ "Facebook". Facebook. Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  17. ^ "Facebook". Facebook. Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  18. ^ "UNESCO Office in Bangkok: UNESCO Youth Forum Looking Beyond Disaster (LBD) to be held on 7 – 11 October 2013, Mercure Hotel, Padang, Indonesia (no registration fee)". 2013-08-21. Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  19. ^ "RockCorps". RockCorps. Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  20. ^ "The Team Picnic Events". Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  21. ^ "Introduction". The Jubilee Hour. Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  22. ^ Buchanan, Kirsty (2012-12-09). "Jubilee Hour a 'fantastic' boost' | UK | News | Daily Express". Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  23. ^ "Student Volunteer Army". Retrieved 21 August 2013.