Finding leadership in times of need: the rewards and challenges of working as a full-time volunteer

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"It’s easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it's leadership to be in the wrong place at the right time". When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast of America last November, Alison Thompson knew it would have a major impact and that the people there would need assistance. Once a nurse, a math teacher, an investment banker, and film director, twelve years ago, Alison gave it away to became a full-time humanitarian volunteer. Since that time, she hasn’t received an income, and has dedicated her work to helping others in times of need. Advance talks to Alison about some of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of her new role.  

Tell us a little bit about your career path and your experiences with volunteering

I’ve had many careers. From nursing to math teacher to investment banker to film director and now, since September 11, I am a full time humanitarian and Ambassador to the Haiti Ministry of Environment. It’s been a long, sometimes hard, and wonderful journey and it has opened a new pathway of thinking to creating real, sustainable solutions in a fast moving world, which is in many areas, often stuck in red tape and antiquated field manuals.

After helping as a rescue worker at Ground Zero in New York City for a year, my life was changed and I saw a real need for volunteers. I headed to Sri Lanka to help with the 2004 tsunami and ended up running a field hospital and rebuilding a large village. It was there that the need for some type of tsunami warning appeared crucial, so I created the first Tsunami Early-Warning Centre, which I still run there today. When the Haiti earthquake struck in 2010 I flew there with actor Sean Penn, as well as many doctors, and we ended up running an Internally Displaced Persons camp and field hospital of over 65,000 people who had lost their homes. While living in my tent late at night I would hear the sound of women being sexually abused far off in the dark. I felt helpless, so I started to think about solutions and created Weadvance.org with Maria Bello, which is a gender based violence organisation which cares for sexually abused women and children in Haiti. I continue to work there and am also now the Ambassador to the Ministry of the Environment. Through the Ministry, we have a plan to plant one billion trees in Haiti to help combat reforestation and future food sources. Most of these solutions stem from common sense - I don’t have a lot of big skills but my small ones can add up to make real change.

For the past 12 years, as a full-time volunteer, I haven’t received an income, but somehow the universe opens up and keeps me afloat and I survive. I have learnt that disasters have become too big for Governments and NGOs to handle alone and there is an absolute need for regular citizens to rise up and help out in the form of volunteering. Volunteering has allowed me to explore areas I could never have imagined, and I feel like I am probably the happiest person I know.

What inspires you about the work you do?

I am inspired by everyday people who, against all odds, rise up and are resilient to their dark situations, especially the strong powerful women in developing countries who have so much to battle against, from violence to poverty, but can still laugh and manage to find food and water for their children daily without complaining. I know a very poor, kind lady in Haiti who is blind and lost her legs in the earthquake and has 8 kids to feed. She manages to sell food on the street corner and keeps her family fed and clothed and in school and still worries about if I have eaten that day. Those are the types of people whom I would want to sit at a banquet with one day.

What have you found to be the most difficult or challenging aspect of your career?

The most difficult and most challenging part of my career is the frustration of figuring out how to tackle the massive problems of this world. They are way too big for my little brain to even think about solving. When I get these feelings I know I have to reign myself in to a smaller scale and know that I can’t help everyone but I can help these people right in front of me and that is enough, and it usually turns out to help quite a few more than the few in front of me.

What are the next steps for your organisation ‘We Advance’?

The next steps for We Advance is to launch our new online We Advance University. The University is an online learning model with donated computers strategically placed all over the country (even in small remote areas) where women can come to get help and become educated about their rights.

We are also tackling women's rights issues on a legislative stage. Haiti is country where rape only became illegal in 2006 so we have a long way to go with women’s rights. My 'We Advance' partner Maria Bello just became the Haitian Goodwill Ambassador for women, so we have a good pulse into the heart of what is going on there.

With my Ambassadorship to the Environment posting, we are tackling issues such as reforestation and a major food crisis. To help a younger generation understand the importance of trees I have created a school curriculum where each school child receives seeds and a pot and learns how to grow their own tree. An educational study about caring for the environment is also available.

What is your most recent challenge? 

When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast of America last November, I knew it was big and I knew that they would need assistance. That is where I have been working in more recent weeks. Living with over 30,000 people in the dark without power or heat and trying to get them much needed medical assistance, food and water. If I had a choice of being anywhere in the world – here in the Rockaways is exactly where I would want to be. This is humanity and we are in this together. It’s easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time but its leadership to be in the wrong place at the right time.

About Alison

Alison Thompson is a professional humanitarian volunteer, who has helped with the recovery after 9/11, the tsunami in Sri Lanka, the earthquake in Haiti and other projects in the developing world. Alison is also a co-founder of ‘We Advance’, a women’s rights based grassroots movement that focuses on capacity building, working in some of the poorest slums in the western hemisphere where security issues deter the work of many international NGOs.

Alison was appointed as the first Ambassador to the Haitian Ministry of Environment and she has written a book and produced a documentary on volunteering, both called ‘The Third Wave’, to inspire a volunteer and leadership movement. Alison has been recognised internationally, receiving a Medal of the Order of Australia from Queen Elizabeth for her extraordinary volunteering work and contribution to mankind. 

Next Monday 14 January, Alison will also feature in Ricki Lake's “Hidden Heroes” show. You can see it in Los Angeles on FOX11 at 3PM and again the following morning at 11AM on MyFoxLA. For those of you not in the Los Angeles area, go to http://therickilakeshow.com/ and click on Where to Watch in the top right hand corner to find out the time and channel it airs in your city.