Giving refugees shelter in a box

When disaster and conflict strike anywhere in the world, it is not always the United Nations or other large agencies that initially respond to help the thousands forced from their homes.

It is often just people – volunteers like Kelly Wike, a State Farm Insurance agent in Tyrone.

She is most concerned about Syrian refugees at that moment.

The conflict in Syria has driven more than 6 million people from their homes, and as of a little over a month ago, more than 2 million people, mostly women and children, have become refugees in the nearby countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.

Wike, through her association with the Altoona Sunrise Rotary Club, has become active in a worldwide organization called ShelterBox, which provides tents, blankets and many other items that enable refugees to establish a temporary home and to survive the crisis.

So far ShelterBox, headquartered in Great Britain, but with fundraising outposts in at least 16 nations, including ShelterBox USA, has responded with aid to 4,500 Syrian families.

The goal is to help another 5,000 families before winter sets in, Wike said.

On the wall is a framed award from President Barack Obama: the President’s Volunteer Service Award.

Wike has been active in her community for many years, including being president of the Tyrone Hospital Board of Trustees.

In an adjacent room is a globe, which seems apropos in view of Wike’s involvement with ShelterBox that has responded to the needs of displaced persons in more than 200 disasters and conflicts in 75 countries during the last 13 years.

Helps in United States

Those disasters are not all in distant lands.

ShelterBox provided aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy a year ago in New Jersey, and this year provided temporary homes to victims of the Oklahoma tornadoes.

As Wike explained, ShelterBox is ready to respond within 48 hours to events throughout the world.

When the tornadoes hit Oklahoma in May, her group went immediately to Norman.

ShelterBox really wasn’t needed in that city, which had shelters and organizations to care for its displaced, but the group was soon realized rural areas of the state, like Moore, Okla., desperately needed help. ShelterBox responded to Moore, and many of the much smaller towns where the devastation was complete.

The ShelterBox

Not far from the globe in a room adjacent to the Wike’s personal office is a large green box. This is the ShelterBox from which the organization is named.

The box is several times larger than a recycling bin. It is “iconic green.”

Wike unsnaps the top of the box, and like a magician pulling numerous rabbits from a small hat, she lifts out a folded white tent.

When erected, the tent is large enough to house several people. Wike said she can’t reach the top of the tent.

When set up properly, the tent can withstand winds up to 110 mph, she said.

Then comes the heavy metal poles to support the tent. There are blankets and covers of various sorts. ShelterBox does not include sleeping bags. They look too much like body bags, Wike said.

If the box is going to a tropical area, it includes items like mosquito nets.

She points out that many of the ShelterBox tents erected after the 2008 hurricane in Haiti, where 22,000 dwellings were destroyed, are still in use.

She continues to pull items from the box – a water purifier that is expected to last for three years, pots, pans, cups, a stove and stove pipes. There are ponchos and a solar light bulb, and finally she pulls out a little cloth bag that contains stuff for children, like pencils, a slate board and chalk and even a very small doll.

The final item she pulls from the box is a tool kit that includes an ax, a saw and a hammer.

Wike admits she has trouble putting everything back into the box once it has been unloaded, particularly the tent.

When emptied, the box can be used as a baby bassinet, she said.

Each box weights 110 pounds, but Wike thinks it is heavier than that when fully loaded.

It costs $1,000 for a box, but that includes transportation and the response teams that travel to the disaster area.

Wike’s job as one of about 300 “ambassadors” for ShelterBox in the United States is to raise money.

She gives talks and takes her green box out to various organizations and public areas in a quest for donations.

She has been very successful.

Tiffany Stephenson of ShelterBox USA headquarters at Lakewood Ranch, Fla., said Wike was named ambassador of the month for July for her efforts to raise funds.

Emily Sperling, president of ShelterBox USA, in the announcement of Wike’s award, said “Our organization would cease to exist without ambassadors like Kelly, who continue to rally support in the local communities, ultimately making a difference in the lives of disaster survivors around the world.”

A Tyrone native

Wike is a Tyrone native, a graduate of the local high school and Juniata College.

She taught school from 1973 through 1985 but took the job with State Farm after finding out she may lose her teaching job because of dwindling enrollment.

State Farm came looking for me,” she said, and she accepted.

As she was discussing ShelterBox, the director of youth programs for a church in Jersey Shore, Mark Shall, came into her office to offer the help of his youth group in raising funds.

Shall, representing the Immaculate Conception and St. Luke Church, said he was looking for something his kids could do, and said he would like to set up a presentation of ShelterBox in the Lycoming Mall in Williamsport.

He told Wike he thinks his group could raise enough money to support a box and maybe more.

He was thinking of a fundraiser in which the young people might hold a fundraising meal in which they would cook the food.

Wike supported Shall’s idea.

During the past few years, Wike has traveled the world. She has been in India four times in support of effort to build dam to capture monsoon rains that are used to irrigate farm land.

In February, she will make her fifth trip India to distribute polio drops, as a follow-up effort in the eradication of that disease.

She has traveled to Japan and Nicaragua as part of her efforts to help people.

In summing up ShelterBox, she said, “I feel wonderful. I feel it is really worthwhile.”

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray can be reached at 946-7468.