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Gainesville man helps spread hope through ShelterBox program

POSTED: March 1, 2008 5:00 a.m.
For The Times/

The contents of a ShelterBox are shown.

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When Mike Freeman first heard about the ShelterBox program, it piqued his interest. Freeman, a retired Episcopal priest and former president of the South Hall Rotary Club, was intrigued by the idea of delivering a box filled with needed essentials to major disaster areas.

In January, after a year of application, review and training, Freeman’s telephone rang at his home in Gainesville. The next afternoon, he was on a plane bound for the African nation of Zambia, where the worst floods in half a century had brought widespread devastation.

ShelterBox is a program developed by Tom Henderson, a member of a British Rotary Club, who had the idea of filling a large storage tote with essential supplies, such as a tent, cooking utensils, basic tools, sleeping bags and a cooking stove for use in disaster areas. The boxes were sent to areas affected by Hurricane Katrina and the Southeast Asian tsunami.

Freeman, one of 16 members of the ShelterBox response team in the U.S., spoke of his experiences during an appearance Monday before the Rotary Club of Gainesville.

"I like to deal one on one with people," Freeman said. "I like to enable people to get out of a bad situation, and this is perfect for that. We don’t drop the boxes off. We give them to people and help them set up the tent."

Freeman said the people in Zambia had been homeless for three weeks by the time he and other ShelterBox volunteers arrived.

"This was the first time in three weeks they had slept under anything but the stars," he said. "I’m not going to change their lives; I’m just going to help them survive."

He told of how, in some countries, the only way to deliver the boxes was by donkeys, which were loaded with boxes and led to the sites where people were in need. The donkeys were then given to the people.

The actual contents of the ShelterBox vary by situation. In countries where exposure to cold is a problem, warm sleeping bags are provided. In regions where tropical weather is the norm, a blanket and ground sheets are included.

Modeled on a typical African bush hut, the 10-person tents have successfully stood up to snowfalls in the mountains of Kashmir, tropical downpours in Indonesia and the intense sunlight of Kenya and surrounding countries.

The tents have built in mosquito screens, integral groundsheets, good ventilation and internal privacy screens. The organization has also developed a heavy-duty fly sheet that can prolong the life of the tent by eight to 10 months by protecting it from the ultraviolet damage caused by intense tropical sun.

Among the items being tried in the box is a radio, which is powered by a crank device.

The 40-gallon box has also been put to use as a table, a water reservoir or, in some cases, as a crib for an infant.

Each box has a serial number that can identify where and to whom the box is delivered.

Freeman told the Gainesville Rotarians that a box they purchased earlier this year had been sent to a disaster in Kenya on Jan. 25. A ShelterBox and its contents costs $1,000 and is designed to last for up to 18 months.

Freeman is now on call for the organization and with 48-hours notice can be dispatched anywhere in the world.


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