Disaster relief guru unveils solution to communities' long-term recovery
Whether he is dangling in pitch darkness from the winch cable of a search and rescue helicopter 50 miles off Land's End or devising a unique way of delivering aid to people caught up in international disasters, Tom Henderson's own life has been dedicated to saving the lives of others.
The recipient of an OBE, the Trelawny Plate and a host of other accolades, Tom last year stepped away from ShelterBox, the Cornish charity he started in 2000, and is now concentrating on what he believes is the next phase in disaster relief.
Speaking in a cramped Portakabin on an industrial estate in Redruth which serves as Shelter For Humanity's temporary base, it is clear that this inspirational figure has lost little of his passion for putting things right.
Despite having provided accommodation for two million people in 90 countries in 150 disasters during the 10 years he ran ShelterBox, Tom said he always felt the charity should also have been offering continuing support for affected communities. It is that need for ongoing aid that led to the formation of SFH. Part of The Jane Henderson Foundation, which was established in memory of Tom's wife who died last year, SFH intends to take disaster relief to the next stage.
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"I was beginning to become mildly embarrassed when we went into a disaster zone and told people we were there to help and that we had some shelter," said Tom. "Ten years ago that was brilliant but I've always said there's no point being a one product charity. I've always wanted to take a more holistic view of disaster relief – and with SFH we have that chance."
With the help of his sons, John and Edwin – "Team H" as he calls the family – Tom set about developing a truly practical transitional shelter to house families for much longer periods. The result is a long-term lifesaver.
"Our concept was the same as ever," said Tom. "Keep it simple and do it now."
Key to SFH's future success is John, a gifted engineer who was offered a place at Imperial College before he'd even finished his GCSEs at Mullion School. John's task was to create a fully functional, durable and affordable modular building that could be easily transported anywhere in the world. What he came up with is a steel-framed, steel-roofed structure, six metres by six metres, of which half is enclosed family accommodation. Remarkably, it all packs on to a single pallet and can be manufactured and delivered anywhere in the world for less than £2,000.
"I gave John the same brief that every agency in the world has been working on – but I gave him some further specifications," said Tom. "Over the past 10 years we have become shelter specialists. We're not food specialists, water and sanitation specialists or education specialists. But we do know about shelter. So we know that whether you're in Haiti or Swaziland or the Philippines, the needs are all different. For instance, people might try to build temporary shelters with bamboo, but all of a sudden they run out of bamboo – or there are no nails.
"So my brief to John was to come up with a 'turn-key' solution that is delivered on one pallet and can be put on a truck and driven up a mountain. It has everything in it, two men can put it up in eight hours with no tools and it has a 20-year life. What's more, we can build them and deliver them anywhere in the world for less than £2,000."
Such a figure seems remarkable, considering the huge number of components, manufacture and transport costs. It is even more remarkable when you enter an SFH transitional shelter. It is, in a word, a home. With private sleeping quarters, cooking and living areas, water collection pipes and tank, it contains all the essentials and more.
I remember speaking to Tom Henderson shortly after he set up ShelterBox a decade ago or so ago and being told that one of the driving forces of the charity was to restore dignity to individuals and communities. What affected him so much was the sight of desperate people – already suffering the trauma of a natural disaster – being forced into the humiliating position of scrabbling for food parcels tossed from the back of aid aircraft in flight. Through ShelterBox, Tom was determined that his brand of disaster relief would not compromise victims' dignity.
The same is true of Shelter For Humanity, which aims to initially offer survivors a new type of tent specially developed for the charity by Vango, followed by the delivery of their revolutionary transitional shelters.
"I can look anyone in the eye, including the Red Cross and the United Nations, and say we have the best disaster relief tent in the world and the best transitional shelter in the world," said Tom.
But he said before SFH is able to go into full production, the charity first needs to raise its profile.
"What we want to get across is that we are here to help provide a solution and to offer people caught up in a disaster what they need," said Tom. "As shelter specialists we know that an earthquake in Nepal in winter is different to a flood in Sudan in summer. In every situation the geography is different, the weather is different and everything from lifestyle and culture to what people eat is different.
"For instance, if you attend a disaster affecting 10,000 people in China, only a thousand will be children because of the one-child family policy. But if you go to parts of Africa that figure will be 8,000 children."
Still reeling from the sudden death of his wife, Jane, just a year ago, Tom says he wants to create a meaningful and lasting legacy in her name. With enormous support both worldwide and at home in Cornwall, Shelter For Humanity and The Jane Henderson Foundation intend to make a significant contribution to global disaster relief. However, the founder remains realistic about the time scale.
"Nothing is going to bring my wife back or the boys' mum back, but we are fiercely determined to move on the work she was so passionate about, whether we go quickly or slowly," he said.
"I started ShelterBox from my garage – and now it is spread throughout the world. This yard in Redruth is currently 'mission control' for The Jane Henderson Foundation and Shelter For Humanity. It took five years for ShelterBox to get established – and in the fifth year, when we expected to distribute 900 boxes, we ended up sending 25,000.
"It is a huge privilege to have the chance to help people in need and if you get that chance to help you must do it to the best of your ability. That's where we are coming from as individuals.
"But there is always more to do. I'm not evangelical, I'm not religious, I'm just a very practical and determined guy."
Turning briefly to the circumstances of his removal from ShelterBox, which are the subject of continuing proceedings, Tom remains sanguine.
"I don't blame anybody who looks at what has been going on and decides they can better use their money by giving it to the Red Cross or Unicef or whatever," he said.
"When powerful words like 'arrest' and 'fraud' and 'money laundering' are being bandied about, why wouldn't people be wary? But what I would say to people is please come and talk to me.
"Over the last 12 years I've done nothing that I haven't believed to be in the best interests of the people we serve. Judge me by what I do and not by what you have heard."
For more details about Shelter For Humanity and The Jane Henderson Foundation, visit shelterfor.org