Ways to Help Communities in Crisis
September 9, 2013

On February 22nd 2011 a devastating series of earthquakes shook Christchurch in New Zealand. It was the country’s deadliest peacetime disaster and 185 people lost their lives. Much of the central city was razed to the ground including the iconic Cathedral building. The ensuing national state of emergency lasted until the end of April. One of the most inspirational stories to come out of this time of terrible grief and turmoil was the formation of the Student Army. It showed how the very best of human nature can come to the fore in times of great desperation.

Christchurch New Zealand
Christchurch, New Zealand

The power of Facebook

The student volunteer army had in fact already formed via a Facebook page when a 7.1 magnitude earthquake had occurred in 2010. The 2011 quake peaked at 6.3 but its impact was far greater. Thanks to their experience gained in coping with the earlier event, the co-ordinators were more than ready to take on the task of organizing over 26,000 students who signed on to help. In the end, they cleared over 360,000 tonnes of liquefaction as well as giving hot meals, clean water and emotional assistance to those in crisis. It was a phenomenal achievement.


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The older generation are fond of recollecting the blitz spirit that prevailed in the worst bombings of the war, when neighbours instinctively turned to help one another in any way they could. In recent times we have seen this again in the wake of the Yorkshire floods, or the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. When the chips are down, it seems that people are predisposed to act kindly and unselfishly. The record amounts collected year after year for Comic Relief and Children in Need also show this capacity for empathy. Funds are raised in myriads of ways whether crazy, crafty or creative, from money for people’s old clothes to sponsored silences and karaoke competitions.


Not all bad news

When disasters strike, the media focus tends to be on the scale of the calamity, such as the numbers of dead or injured, the economic consequences and the tragedy. What is often missing from the news bulletins is the positive aspect of those, like the student volunteer army, who galvanise to help others. Not long after Christchurch was just getting back on its feet again, the Japanese tsunami took its dreadful toll. Sam Johnson, who had founded the army, went straight to Waseda University to help them to set up their own version. He was still only 21 years old.


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A recent study at the University of California proves that random acts of kindness have a profound effect on general wellbeing, inducing feelings of optimism and emotional warmth. It actually releases the hormone oxytocin, which lowers blood pressure and this benefits the heart and suppresses anxiety. “People who engage in kind acts become happier over time” says Sonja Lyubominsky, Ph.D. who has studied human happiness for over 20 years. It is reassuring to think that such a simple solution to combating misery is available to us all.