Visit to ShelterBox H.Q.

Wadebridge Rotary Club visits the new ShelterBox Office in Truro for a guided and interesting tour

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Rotary Visit to ShelterBox 28-9-2017

25 Rotarians and guests from Wadebridge descended on the new ShelterBox HQ in Truro, in place of the regular Thursday meeting.

ShelterBox has evolved since its beginnings, the most obvious being the move from Helston to the centre of Truro. This has prompted questions amongst Rotarians about where the money we contribute is going, so this provided an opportunity to ask ShelterBox directly, as well as see round the visitor centre.

After being welcomed by Lesley-Ann Eaton-Keen, we were given a tour of the vistor centre by Tony Williams, himself a Rotarian from Redruth and AG for West Cornwall. The centre is on the ground floor, with operations up a floor and fund raising on the floor above that.

In an area demarcated by a wall of classic green shelterboxes, Patricia Brocklebank and Paul Boote grabbed the opportunity to pack a box, showing us what goes in. Each box is intended to support a family of five people. The contents differ depending on the disaster and the climate, but items such as solar lights, water storage and purification equipment, thermal blankets and cooking utensils help start the process of creating a home in the tent provided. In an example of the learning and evolution, Tony told us that the tent, being the biggest item, used to be packed first with the smaller items around it. Seems logical – but on arrival, the tent is the first thing needed so everything else had to be unloaded to get at it, and kit might “go missing” while the tent was erected. So now the tent goes into the box last.

But the box is no longer the be all and end all of ShelterBox. Not every emergency is met with a box. Sometimes the ShelterKit is a better answer - a selection of materials, including toolkits, ropes, fixings and heavy-duty tarpaulins, that can be used to make emergency shelters, repair damaged buildings and create the foundations for new homes. This can be supplemented by lighting, water containers and purifiers or other items, as needed for the particular disaster. A ShelterKit is much cheaper than a tent and can be more effective, if for example buildings are damaged but still standing and usable.

The effort is to tailor what is supplied to what is needed, and avoid things that are not needed or won’t be used. ShelterBox has improved its cultural awareness. For example, it doesn’t send sleeping bags any more. To many recipients, these look like body bags and they won’t use them. So blankets are sent instead. In this way, costs can be reduced so that more people can be helped with the same money.

ShelterBox partners closely with Rotary International. Not only does Rotary generate around a third of Shelterbox’s income, it also provides invaluable support through the clubs in the disaster areas, such things as translation, transportation, customs clearance, access to government officials, local know-how and practical skills. This relationship can clear red tape and speed up delivery of shelter. 

Michael Johns is the chief operating officer. He explained where ShelterBox sees itself going. 19 million people were displaced by natural disasters last year, and 65 million by conflicts (20% in Syria). ShelterBox helped 30,000 families, about 150,000 people. This is good, but there is still a huge gap. They were faced with a choice of remaining a relatively small niche player, on around £6m per year, or growing to meet more of the need, which would entail an increased and more professional approach to fund raising.

Its vision is “No family without shelter”. In more concrete terms, it aims to provide shelter for one million people a year by 2025, with a net income of £40m to devote to aid – helping more people for less money.

The new offices are part of this. There was not the scope to expand the office space at Helston, so ShelterBox sold the property it owned there and now rents in Truro. The visitor centre in a central location contributes to the fund raising. 

It will continue its sharp focus on providing shelter. People are always suggesting good ideas – sanitation and medicines were suggested by Rotarians on the night, for example – but this is seen as diverting from the expertise that ShelterBox has developed. The other things are important, and life-saving, but the approach is to link with other organisations that do them. There isn’t enough money to provide all the shelter needed, never mind anything else.

In the middle of seeing and hearing what happens, we had a £15 buffet supper and a glass of wine in the cafeteria area (which is also where Truro Evolution Rotary satellite club meets). Our thanks to ShelterBox for that and the opportunity to see and hear what they are doing now.

Report and some photos by Kevin Smith; with other photos by Paula Martin