Brian Gu talks to Isabella Fanselow of the Student Volunteer Army about the rallying of student volunteers nationwide to service aid to those unable to shop for necessities during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. If you want to volunteer or know of someone who can benefit from their nationwide grocery delivery service, please head to sva.org.nz or continue reading this article for more information.
During a time where the nation is up against one of its toughest challenges in our lifetime, I am proud to be reporting on fellow students who have voluntarily rallied together to make a difference. Through their kindness, selflessness, and responsibility to take action, they have emerged onto the frontline through their grocery delivery service for those unable to leave home. They have been sponsored by the nation’s biggest brands, partnered with New World, and even been lauded by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – they are the Student Volunteer Army.
It was only last summer that I was introduced to the Student Volunteer Army (SVA); a time where, only mere months away, no-one could have guessed this group would find themselves having such a large role to play in New Zealand’s efforts against COVID-19. However, jumping into action when times are hard is what this group are used to, and it’s the foundation they were established on, having first formed as a student collective down in Canterbury following the earthquakes. The premise of their volunteer work is simple, but what astonishes most is when you learn of the sheer scale of their operations.
“We have approximately 2500 registrations of volunteers,” SVA student president Isabella Fanselow tells me. “Of those, 786 are in Auckland.” Isabella is a student from the University of Canterbury in her final year of Chemical Process Engineering and heads the student executive team. “I’m not doing a whole lot of studying I must say,” she jokingly admits. “It’s definitely very SVA heavy at the moment!”
As the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, Isabella describes watching the rapid growth of her team to achieve national mobilization of volunteers. “Normally, we have 30 students who run the club and then three to four full-time staff,” she tells me. “But in the last month, we’ve got around 100 students working on things from an organizational sense and 40 people working full-time, whether that be in our call-centre, on the tech that has gone into making the grocery system, or just generally leading comms to the media.”
With their recent New World partnership, SVA have expanded their grocery delivery service across Aotearoa, including up here in Auckland. Isabella tells me this is the first nationwide volunteer mobilization SVA have done for a specific cause. “We’re certainly learning a lot,” she admits, “but it’s very exciting.” I ask her how the original idea came to fruition.
“So, it started with a somewhat naïve conversation on the 16th of March,” Isabella recalls, “which is now five weeks ago-ish. We were starting to realise that things did not look so good, and there was probably scope where we could help. We started talking to people in the community, and realized that the grocery area was somewhere that people were really struggling, and that if we could build a really safe and robust system, we could help a lot of people across the country. So since we’ve had this realization, we’ve focused most of our attention on this grocery delivery service.”
Isabella walks me through the responsibilities of a grocery delivery volunteer. “The lead picker will send them their orders, then they go to the supermarket. That [volunteer] will then go fill that order, go to the till and then it gets charged to the SVA account which the customer has paid into. The order is then delivered contactlessly to the person who made it.”
“To ensure that our volunteers are safe,” Isabella adds, “the supermarkets open their doors early for us so that our volunteers are the only ones in there. They also get given masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to use.” She is confident the system that SVA have set up protects the safety of its volunteers and beneficiaries. “The volunteer picks and then delivers that order, so there’s no changing hands of orders.”
The robustness of their service, with appreciation of scale, is no doubt tribute to the tireless work the operational team has done behind the scenes in setting this up, from website to volunteer roster. “That was a personal highlight for me,” Isabella recounts as she reflects on this recent journey. “Seeing my team rise to the challenge of this where it’s completely, you know, not what they signed up for. Seeing a lot of them step up into leadership positions has been really rewarding.”
While dealing with SVA from an operational standpoint consumes most of Isabella’s time, she tells me she does get to hear the positive stories of students making a difference on the front line. “It’s super rewarding hearing the feedback from people who’ve gotten the first grocery delivery they’ve had in weeks, and they don’t have to go out to the supermarket and feel so safe. We’ve had lots of people who write a little note and leave it in the window for the volunteer to see.”
And for the icing on the cake, there was of course the almighty name-drop from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during her daily press conference, where she thanked the SVA for their tireless work. “We had no idea that she was going to say anything to us,” Isabella tells me with a proud beaming smile. “She had perfect messaging, said exactly what we’re doing in the perfect way, and it was very exciting.”
For now, the plans of the SVA are to continue making this grocery service available for those who need it across the nation. “We will be doing this for the long run,” Isabella insists. “Even once we’re down to Alert Level 1, people who are medically vulnerable and elderly should still not be leaving their houses, so we’ll be operating at all levels.” As the restrictions become looser over time, Isabella suggests she would like to see the organization expand to assist people who are alone during these difficult times. “Once we are able to have more contact with people, it would be really cool to explore how we can work to help combat social isolation.”
Perhaps what surprises me most of all, and serves as best reflecting the selflessness of student volunteers, is when Isabella tells me the service isn’t at a shortage of volunteers but rather beneficiaries. “We’ve just got so many volunteers who are keen to help,” Isabella tells me. “So we’ve 100% got the capability to provide the help. People shouldn’t feel like they’re going to be making life difficult for us by putting an order through; they’re actually enabling people who want to get out there and help to help, and in a safe way.”
“I really encourage anybody if they know someone who is in need of the service, whether that be single parents who can’t leave the house because they can’t leave children behind, medically vulnerable, elderly – just anyone who needs it. Send [this service] through to parents, grandparents, neighbours and friends.”
For shoppers and volunteers, simply head to sva.org.nz to be connected with all the information you need or contact the SVA helpline 0800 005 902 for phone assistance. If you enjoyed this piece, please share it with your friends – let’s spread the word about SVA!