Our Story

The Student Volunteer Army (SVA) has a unique journey. Through the small beginnings of a Facebook event sent to 200 friends, thousands of students made a significant contribution to those most affected by the devastating Christchurch earthquakes.


‘September’ Earthquake

Christchurch was struck with a 7.1 magnitude earthquake on the 4th of September 2010. In response to this natural disaster, University of Canterbury student, Sam Johnson, created a Facebook group called the “Student Base for Earthquake Clean Up”. Sam invited friends to join him in assisting local residents with non life-saving tasks, in particular removing liquefaction around Christchurch.

The support for the group skyrocketed and more than 2500 student volunteers arrived in force to contribute to the clean-up of over 65,000 tonnes of liquefaction. Sam worked with the University of Canterbury to maximise this momentum and from this came the Student Volunteer Army (SVA).

‘February’ Earthquake

Canterbury was rocked again by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake on the 22nd of February 2011. The damage from this quake was far greater and resulted in the tragic loss of 185 lives. The SVA’s response to this quake was more efficient and effective, dispatching thousands of volunteers within a three week period to assist communities in need. 13,000 students volunteered in just one week.

The February operation was managed by a core team of 15 people, with an additional administration team of 70 people. The movement was divided into Battalions, Squadrons and Street teams. The mass deployment of  ‘Battalions’, was the focus of the operation. 1000 of volunteers were bused to the worst affected areas, where they combed the streets looking for opportunities to assist the community. Squadrons provided assistance by responding to requests from individuals that came via the website, call center, Civil Defence and the City Council. Up to 450 car-loads of students were allocated using a mixture of software, texting, and Google mapping. Street teams managed volunteer engagement for various organisations, including multiple government departments, Civil Defence and the Christchurch City Council.

The SVA has been instrumental in mobilising youth around the world to provide disaster relief. Examples of this include, assisting Japanese university students to develop a similar programme to provide relief in the wake of the 2011 Japan earthquake and providing assistance to New York in the recovery effort for Hurricane Sandy.

Notable SVA events include; “The Concert”, the visit from Prince Harry and the response to the Kaikoura Earthquake. The Concert was a 10 hour music event, which required attendees to volunteer at least four hours of their time to get a ticket. Over 8,000 tickets were sent out and a total of over $40,000 hours of volunteering was completed. The visit from His Royal Highness Prince Harry was a special experience for the Executive, who were able to talk with Prince Harry about the origins of the SVA and its continuing work.

The SVA is a multi-faceted movement and has expanded beyond its university origins to involve people of all ages from all over New Zealand.