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#VolunteersActFirst – Gift of the Givers Foundation

The theme of this year’s International Volunteer Day, “Volunteers Act First. Here. Everywhere.” is an opportunity to raise awareness on the role that volunteers play as first responders in times of crisis.

To take this conversation forward, Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa has chosen to highlights and interview first-responder organisations in South Africa.

Our third interview is with Gift of the Givers Foundation.

GOTG2What is the mission of your organisation?

The Gift of the Givers Foundation is the largest disaster relief organisation of African origin on the African continent. We have delivered over R2.1 billion in aid to 43 countries around the world, including South Africa.

We run 21 projects, administered by our offices in South Africa and Malawi. The projects cover areas such as Health, Education, Agricultural Sustainability, Life Skills, Job Creation & Entrepreneurship, Feeding Schemes, Sport & Culture and Winter Warmth.

Our assistance is purely humanitarian and unconditional. We assist irrespective of race, religion, colour, class, political affiliation or geographical boundary.


What role does your organisation play in responding to disasters? 

Our response varies according to the type of disaster but in most cases the methodology and items used are similar.

In most cases we would provide the following:

- Tents, floor mats, mattresses and blankets

- Essential food items including rice, flour, oil, sugar, baby milk, salt, beans

- Sibusiso Ready Food Supplement (a high energy and protein supplement, innovated by Gift of the Givers, and the first of its kind in the world)

- Bottled water and water purification tablets

- Search and Rescue personnel and a team of medical specialists

- Medical equipment, medicines and medical supplies

In some cases we also get involved in the building of houses for victims of disasters or provide, for example, fishing boats and nets to communities to assist them to re-establish their livelihoods.

We pride ourselves in speedy and efficient response and in many disasters we are the first in the world to respond. We select and purchase the aid items, hire our own planes, send our own aid workers and medical teams and distribute the aid personally.

Which disasters in South Africa has your organisation recently been involved with? 

During 2017 we have responded to:

- Fires in Hout Bay (Imizamo Yethu) – where approximately 6000 people were displaced

- The fires Knysna – one of the largest disasters in SA in recent times – with over 1000 homes destroyed

- The recent megastorm in KwaZulu-Natal

- The storms in Gauteng – Zandspruit, Putfontein

- Smaller fires in informal settlements in Western Cape and Gauteng

What challenges does your organisation face as first-responders during disasters? 

The two main challenges are always the same. Of course, with a growing support base and experience (Gift of the Givers has just celebrated 25 years as a disaster-relief organisation) – these challenges are easier to resolve.

- Getting an accurate assessment of the damage or affected areas.

While the basic response to each disaster is quite standard, there are several things that must be clearly identified so that the response can be effective. This is more important (and at the same time more difficult) when the disaster occurs far away from one of our logistical centres. What is the scale of the disaster? Where is a suitable location to set up a base? How many people are affected? What is the immediate need?

- Setting up a base to work from

When a disaster occurs far away from one of our logistical centres, we need to establish a temporary base from which we can work closer to the disaster site. A good base is one that balances: Safety and security – with accessibility to the affected areas, and being able to accommodate trucks and supplies, volunteers and beneficiaries – but quick to set up and dismantle should the need arise (in volatile situations). 


What role do volunteers play within your organisation? 

As an organisation we have three broad categories of volunteers:

As mentioned previously, some of the challenges include getting a proper assessment and setting up a base to work from. One of the ways that this is addressed is through volunteers. Since they are closer to the disaster area – these volunteers are called upon to assess the areas and establish relations in the area. Once the team arrives, these volunteers assist with the distribution of supplies or as part of the operational support team.

The second group of volunteers in our team are medical experts. This team of over 300 members consist of Search and Rescue personnel, paramedics, nurses, doctors and surgeons covering all the medical faculties. Whenever a disaster requires a medical intervention – it is from this group of people that we select a team that is sent to assist.

There is one more group of volunteers. As an organisation, we run a counselling service. Volunteers undergo training by our team to provide support and advice to people facing depression, relationship issues, substance abuse, suicidal attempts or any form of emotional distress. We offer a face-to-face and a toll-free telephonic service. It is fully run by volunteer. In many cases – as part of the secondary phase of the response, a team of counsellors is sent in to help people deal with the emotional trauma of the disaster.


Please provide three key ways that individuals/companies/government organisation can assist in meaningful ways during times of disaster?

1. Awareness – this is one of the most important. It is often assumed that people are aware of what is going on. Just because it was in the news – does not mean people know about it or appreciate the severity of the disaster. Spread the word to your family, friends, colleagues and people that could potentially assist. Alert the relevant authorities or NGOs. The more people that know, the more people that can support the cause. These days it is also important to make sure that you only send reliable information. Unfortunately with social media – unverified (and fake) stories increase the panic and fear in an already tense situation.

2. Contribution – this does not mean just money.

Contributions can be in cash or kind to organisations that are already responding. However, as an individual or a company you have a number of valuable resources.

Time: The need to pack hampers, guide people through queues, pick up/drop off supplies, and the counting/sorting of goods can always use a few extra hands – especially in major disasters.

Usage Vehicles/Storage: This applies more to companies that may have warehouses or large storage areas that are relatively close to the affected areas. Picking up donations from other companies, individuals or organisations and dropping them off at the required locations is another service that is very helpful.

3. Caring for the helpers

In many case the rescue personnel, the aid workers, the emergency services travel far and work long hours during the initial phase of the disaster response. As much as we look at them as doing their job or being trained to do that – they also need to eat, drink and rest. Providing quick snacks or drinks that keep them going (think about firefighters or paramedics) helps sustain them during this period.

What are your three top pieces of advice for volunteers when assisting NPO/NGO in disaster relief? 

1. Safety first

This is possibly the most important point. While the eagerness of many people to assist is very admirable – they need to be aware of the situation. The following must be taken into account:

- Is the area safe to work in from a environmental point of view (think about the wildfires or floods)?

- Are there any other threats? Remember disasters leave the affected communities very frustrated. The situation can be tense. People are angry. Don’t get caught in the wrong place.

- Always go with a group.

- If you are not comfortable or not feeling safe – then leave. This is not a failure on your part. You can always go back. It is important that as a volunteer you are able to contribute positively. Don’t put yourself at risk.

2. Team work

When working with an organisation – especially established ones that have experience – it is important work as a team and follow instructions. In order for the response to be successful – every one has to work towards the same goal – in a coordinated manner.

3. Work to your strengths

Some people are strong. Some are good organisers. Others are great at raising awareness or collecting funds. In a disaster often everyone has to do some of everything. While it is not always possible, if you see the opportunity to do what you are good at – let the organisers know. Doing what you are good at will keep you motivated – but can also help the rest of the team.