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Volunteers travel the globe to support Santa Barbara organization's efforts to help disaster victims

Shelterbox and Habitat for Humanity team up to help disaster victims with shelter in Haiti.
Habitat for Humanity International
ShelterBox and Habitat for Humanity team up to help disaster victims with shelter in Haiti.

ShelterBox helped 200,000 people in 13 countries impacted by natural disasters and conflict in 2020.

We try to help people in need in different ways. Maybe you donate clothing, or money. But, Steven Tonkinson does much more than pulling out his checkbook. For more than a decade, he’s used some of his spare time traveling the world on behalf of a Santa Barbara non-profit, helping people displaced by disasters and conflict.

"I've been to Haiti five times. Sadly with earthquakes and hurricanes over the years, there's been a constant need there," said Tonkinson.

He's been deployed 15 different times around the world.

Tonkinson is a volunteer emergency response team member with ShelterBox. The non-profit provides tents, blankets, solar lamps, cooking utensils and other essentials to people who've lost everything to things like floods.

Tonkinson talked about what the highly trained ShelterBox volunteers do to help.

"After a disaster, it's (at first) mostly assessment... working with organizations and governments," said Tonkinson. "If it's in the middle, it's about getting the aid into country... and towards the end, it's distribution, and and it's monitoring and evaluation."

The ShelterBox volunteer has been traveling the world on behalf of the Santa Barbara based non-profit for 14 years.

"Having grown up in Miami, and dealing with hurricanes, and seeing the impact that disasters can have... I could connect right away with it," said Tonkinson.

ShelterBox officials say having trained volunteers willing to go to crisis zones around the world allows the non-profit to extend its reach, and to do much more than if it had 100% paid staff.

Kerry Murray is the President of ShelterBox USA. The organization has supply centers set up around the world, but the organization’s direction comes from its headquarters in Santa Barbara.

"The ShelterBox response team members are the force multiplier, that enable us to have greater scale, and impact on our work," said Murray. "They absolutely are the catalyst to allow the work of ShelterBox."

Murray said it’s been a busy time for the non-profit. They’ve been trying to help some of the millions displaced by flooding in Pakistan. And, ShelterBox has been providing aid to refugees from the conflicts in Ukraine, and Syria. In 2020, they helped 200,000 people in 13 countries.

The organization’s president admits one of the hardest things is sometimes having to say no to requests for aid because they don’t have the supplies to help everyone.

ShelterBox doesn’t accept government funding, and totally relies on grants, and gifts from the businesses and the public to do its work.

Volunteer Steven Tonkinson said helping is eye-opening.

"It gives you perspective of what it is you need to prioritize in your life. It's not those material things. It's your family, your friends, and your community," he said.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.