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Student Volunteer Army’s Sam Johnson challenges Gen Y stereotype

An organic leadership structure conducive to students has seen the president of the Student Volunteer Army in Christchurch receive the Sir Peter Blake Special Leadership Award. 

At only 22, Sam Johnson may be leading an army, but there’s no regimented structure in sight, in a move that has seen the team’s ideas taken to the world, and has certainly pushed the Gen Y stereotype. 

When the Japanese earthquake hit, Johnson and fellow SVA Committee member Jason Pemberton headed to Japan to set up a student volunteer army there after being contacted by some Japanese students on Facebook. 

Johnson says: “We didn’t want to speak to people in charge.”  Instead, the pair worked with students, advising what had worked and what they could learn from Christchurch when rallying their own army for the clean-up there. 

The kiwi students helped set up a similar structure to what they had implemented with their own army, one ignoring regimented hierarchy to be more conducive to students. 

At home, an inclusive approach to leadership created with students in mind is what Johnson says he believes has made the Christchurch SVA so successful.  The army is lead by Johnson, along with a secretary, a treasurer and what he calls a “core group” of volunteers. 

A layer-like structure has allowed students to control their own level of commitment. 

“I don’t like hierarchical structure.  For us there’s been the core group, and then a wider group, and a wider group, and a wider group,” he says. 

To solve the problem of a shortage of wheelbarrows, the army was divided into teams each charged with a different task – one team to ring around the community asking to borrow wheelbarrows, one team to transport them to the suburb in need, one team to do the clean up, and another team of mechanics to fix them at the end of the day. 

By harnessing the students’ skills and dividing them accordingly, the SVA has been able to maximise the students’ energy as aftershocks continue to lengthen the clean-up process. 

And, as is the way with students, it all started on Facebook.  The SVA is largely run off its Facebook page, which currently has almost 30,000 fans.  You’d think organising that many students must be a logistical nightmare, but somehow it works just fine. 

A quick scan of the page shows them offering each other rides, borrowing shovels, and chatting away about who’s bringing the baking this weekend. 

Their communication with those in need is pretty organic, too.  The army has an online help request form which asks applicants if the silt at their house is “toe, ankle, knee or waist deep?” 

Johnson says: “One of the biggest things we’ve learnt is about student motivation.” 

Being a student himself, he’s understood that giving students enough food and drink, pepping them up with music and even concerts at the end of a long day shovelling silt is what will keep his troops coming back. 

 “It’s about making it enjoyable.” 

Enthusiasm has been waning more recently as strong aftershocks continue to hit the already exhausted region and its students. 

“One thing I’m really keen on is allowing the idea of students working in the community, and for this to carry on after the event.”  The organic nature of his organisation has certainly encouraged students to soldier on. 

Johnson himself has taken a break from his degree to continue with the clean-up effort. 

“It might not seem like it, but there’s actually still so much to clean up.” 

As well as implementing a scholarship initiative to support children who lost parents in the earthquakes, Johnson also has his duties to fill as a member of the Riccarton-Wigram Community Board,which he was elected on to in October.