Student Volunteer Army

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Student Volunteer Army
Founded2010 (2010)
TypeStudent Club, Non-profit Organisation
  • Christchurch, New Zealand
Isabella Fanselow
WebsiteOfficial website

The Student Volunteer Army (SVA) is a New Zealand student movement born from a Facebook page started following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. 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 by the Volunteer Army Foundation (VAF).

Whilst the movement grew to address community needs in the recovery period following the Christchurch earthquakes, the SVA has never been a solely disaster response focused organisation. The movement operates under an aim to make volunteering and service an intrinsic part of the student experience, and show all New Zealanders the power they have to drive the change they wish to see in their communities. It is this ethos that has allowed the movement to persist beyond the immediate earthquake response [2]. The evidence of this ethos can be seen in the club culture of the UC Student Volunteer Army, and in initiatives such as the SVA School Kit [3] and the Serve for New Zealand [4] campaign.

UC Student Volunteer Army[edit]

Since its inception in response to the earthquakes, the club has maintained a strong presence at the University of Canterbury. The club is the largest student society on campus, with over 3000 members[5], led by an executive committee of 30 students. The club is supported primarily by The University of Canterbury and City Care. The club's efforts in the years since the earthquakes have refocused from providing disaster relief responses, to be more focused on community upkeep and engagement. However, disaster response has still been maintained in the club's skill set, with important roles being played by the SVA in response and in the aftermaths of such major events as 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, 2017 Port Hills fires as well as various floods[6].

The club currently runs a range of events on a yearly schedule. Amongst these are small-scale 'platoon projects' run every weekend targeted at making small but high impact volunteering contributions to those in need, the UCan Schools programme aimed at mentoring local high school students, giving them an insight to the SVA with the hopes they will uptake the ethos and values of the SVA in their own communities. Larger events include 'Connect the Community' intended to bring a large numbers of students into a residential area for a day to work with the local community, as well as two camps taking place in communities outside of the Christchurch area intended to give a wider view of the country to its members, do beneficial work as well as a providing a social experience for volunteers.

UC Student Volunteer Army Presidents[edit]

  • 2020 – Isabella Fanselow
  • 2019 – Sati Ravichandiren
  • 2018 – Josh Blackmore [7]
  • 2017 – Jared McMahon [8]
  • 2016 – Alex Cheesebrough [9]
  • 2015 – Lucy McLeod
  • 2013–14 – Bridget Williams
  • 2012 – Peter Jakowetz
  • 2011–12 – Andrew Chalmers
  • 2010–11 – Sam Johnson

The UC Big Give[edit]

The club's largest annual event is The Big Give. This initiative started in 2017 and is targeted primarily at students new to the university and the city, with the goal to provide a fun, fulling and beneficial volunteering experience reflective of the club's ethos. Students who have taken part in the event have typically done manual labour tasks and received a T-shirt, lunch and a concert for their efforts[10]. The event has continually been the club's largest hosted event since the initial earthquakes.

2017 Big Give[edit]

The inaugural Big Event was hosted in the Southshore Spit Reserve, in Southshore. Approximately 800 university students attended the event, where they worked to rebuild over 2 km of track around the reserve, remove an earthquake damaged seawall from the estuary, conduct invasive species control and restore 8 beach accessways in the wider community. The SVA also installed a picnic table at the site, and handprints from the event can still be seen in the concrete plinth surrounding the table. Entertainment was provided by Mako Road, a local university band.

The inaugural event proved the feasibility and benefit to community and students of the Big Give, and prompted the SVA to add the event to their annual calendar.

SVA Camps[edit]

In 2016, the Student Volunteer Army launched the camp initiative, which connects students with issues facing communities beyond Christchurch. Camps occur twice annually, and typically last a single weekend. The camps are run at minimal cost to the student volunteers, as the SVA has a strong belief that those who volunteer should not have to pay. On camps, volunteers typically spend a half to a full day volunteering, and spend the remainder of the weekend engaging with local community groups, and experiencing local tourist offerings and cultural experiences. Past camp locations include:

  • 2016 Camp 1 – Marlborough Sounds: Volunteers worked to create a 5 km section of the Link Pathway, a track that aims to connect the Queen Charlotte Track with Picton.[11]
  • 2016 Camp 2 – Akaroa: The SVA was hosted at Onuku marae, and conducted a range of projects across Onuku, Akaroa, Duvauchelle and the surrounding area. This was the first camp which included a Māori cultural element, which has become a key focus of one of the SVA camps each year.
  • 2017 Camp 1 – Hanmer Springs: Around 100 volunteers conducted a range of projects in and around Hamner. Volunteers conducted a riparian restoration project at the Hamner Springs Forest Park Camp, worked with the Hamner Heritage Forest Trust, and restored a lay-by picnic area which had been largely destroyed by a fire the year before.
  • 2017 Camp 2 – Kaikoura: This event formed part of the SVA's long-term commitment to working with the people of North Canterbury after the November 2016 earthquake. Volunteers restored a large section of the Kaikoura Peninsular walkway, an area which experienced significant uplift during the quake. Volunteers were hosted at Takahanga marae, and carried out a project on the marae grounds also.
  • 2018 Camp 1 – Twizel: The SVA collaborated with the Department of Conservation and the Mackensie District Council to bring attention to the wilding pine problem in the Mackensie basin. Wilding pines are an invasive species which dominate local species if not controlled. Volunteers worked to remove over 3,000 trees, and cleared an area of 6 square km of pine saplings.
  • 2018 Camp 2 – Hokitika: Student volunteers conducted 9 projects across the wider Hokitika area. Projects included creating a rock garden at Woodstock Reserve, painting and varnishing the church, clearing graves at the cemetery, restoring the Fisher-Price memorial and creating a track at the Hokitika Industrial Heritage Park.

Student Volunteer Army Foundation[edit]

The founders and key committee members from the February earthquake response team have since founded the non-profit Student Volunteer Army Foundation, previously known as the Volunteer Army Foundation (VAF). The foundation oversees, licenses, and trains all SVA chapters and shares, promotes and supports those interested in creating their own volunteer movement.[12]


Disaster response[edit]

September 2010 Christchurch earthquake[edit]

In the days immediately following the 4 September Christchurch earthquake, the campus of the University of Canterbury 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"[13] 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.[14]

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,[15] decided to work with the University of Canterbury Students Association President Kohan McNab[16] 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.[14]

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.[citation needed]

The team worked to increase the efficiency of distributing chemical toilets and pamphlets, as well as manning call centers.[18] 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.[19]

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.[18] 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.[20] 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.[21]

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 of the SVA, to help organize Japanese university students develop a similar volunteer program.[22] Additionally, Global DIRT asked Pemberton and fellow SVA member Jackson Rowland to help New York City recover after Hurricane Sandy.[23] The Volunteer Army Foundation now focuses on disaster response, preferring to help communities prepare and become more resilient to disasters.

Disaster preparedness[edit]

UNESCO Youth Beyond Disaster Forums[edit]

SVA Founder Sam Johnson chaired the planning committee for the inaugural "Looking Beyond Disasters" (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)[24] and Sendai, Japan.[25] In 2013 there will be forums in Indonesia[26] and Kobe, Japan.


In 2012 the Volunteer Army Foundation created an initiative designed to lure youth into experiencing volunteer activity, based on RockCorps.[27] On Saturday 3 November 2012, the foundation hosted a 10-hour music event at the new AMI Stadium in Addington, Christchurch. 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. Over 8,000 tickets were sent out to individuals who contributed a total of over 50,000 hours of volunteering. 24 of New Zealand's best bands volunteered their time for the event, organised by Jonnie Halstead of Picnic Events.[28]

The 50,000 hours of volunteering were contributed to Her Majesty the Queens's Diamond Jubilee project called the 'Jubilee Hour'.[29] 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.[30]


  1. ^ "Volunteer Army Foundation » Youth Engagement, Disaster Preparedness, Service Learning". 13 August 2013. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ [3]
  5. ^ "Student Volunteer Army overtakes Engineering Society". Retrieved 3 June 2018.
  6. ^ "Student Volunteer Army answers call for help in Roxburgh". Retrieved 3 June 2018.
  7. ^ [4]
  8. ^ [5]
  9. ^ [6]
  10. ^ "University of Canterbury's student army cleans up historic WWII site". 3 March 2018. Retrieved 3 June 2018.
  11. ^ Marlborough District Council. "The Link Pathway". Retrieved 30 November 2018.
  12. ^ "Student Volunteer Army". Retrieved 21 August 2013.
  13. ^ "Student Volunteer base for Earthquake clean up". Facebook. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  14. ^ a b c "» About » Volunteer Army Foundation". 4 September 2010. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  15. ^ "Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) : 14 September 2010". Retrieved 2 December 2013.
  16. ^ Tina Law (31 December 2011). "Kohan McNab | It's A New World For Students". Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  17. ^ "GeoOP Powers Student Army, Providing High Tech Aid to Volunteers". Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  18. ^ a b "History". Student Volunteer Army Incorporated. Retrieved 13 April 2012.
  19. ^ "Volunteer Army Foundation » Youth Engagement, Disaster Preparedness, Service Learning". 13 August 2013. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  20. ^ "Sam the man". New Zealand Listener. 18 April 2011. Retrieved 14 July 2011.
  21. ^ "Prince William: 'Grief is the price we pay for love'". TVNZ. 18 March 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2011.
  22. ^ MCKENZIE-MCLEAN, Jo (11 May 2011). "Japan to Use Christchurch Volunteer Model". Retrieved 21 August 2013.
  23. ^ "Quake Volunteers Help with Sandy Clean Up". The Press. 15 November 2012. Retrieved 21 August 2013.
  24. ^ "Facebook". Facebook. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  25. ^ "Facebook". Facebook. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  26. ^ "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)". 21 August 2013. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  27. ^ "RockCorps". RockCorps. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  28. ^ "The Team Picnic Events". Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  29. ^ "Introduction". The Jubilee Hour. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  30. ^ Buchanan, Kirsty (9 December 2012). "Jubilee Hour a 'fantastic' boost' | UK | News | Daily Express". Retrieved 1 September 2013.