Sonia Fitchett was at home in Christchurch when she felt the 6.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Canterbury region on 22 February 2011. She managed to narrowly dodge her bookcase that came tumbling down and ran outside with her family. After ensuring her family was safe, she turned towards her neighbours. 

 “We wheeled our barbecue to the middle of the cul-de-sac and put on a big pot of soup.  The neighbours all gathered and it was an opportunity to check on everyone and make sure we were all okay. Being surrounded by that sense of comfort was reassuring,” says Sonia.  

 After the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that hit Canterbury in September 2010, Sonia was accustomed to aftershocks and assumed this was another one. But the shake just kept getting bigger and the reality of the situation hit.

 “It was very surreal, I was on the east side of town, so we lost power for a few days and lost sewerage for months. We had to go down the road to use a port-a-loo and winter was rough,” recalls Sonia. 

 The September earthquake highlighted the importance of preparedness for Sonia and her family. She made sure that her family had enough water, food and supplies stored away.

 “We had always had a pack ready. The September quake was a reminder that we should refresh our supplies. When this quake hit, we were ready,” says Sonia.

 Two days after the earthquake, Sonia heard that New Zealand Red Cross was looking for volunteers to work in data entry.

 “I was looking for something to do, to feel useful. I was offered a job on the grants team soon after. I spent the next five years administering earthquake recovery grants. Being able to help people deal with all the after effects and get them assistance was satisfying. It helped me deal with the effects of the earthquakes myself, by being able to do something about it,” says Sonia.

Sonia with her fellow Christchurch disaster response volunteers.

What the community needs

New Zealand Red Cross set up a suite of grant programmes for Canterbury residents. These included the Emergency and Hardship Grants, Winter Assistance Grant, Independent Advice Grant, Christchurch School Children’s Grant, Disability Support Grant and the Pack and Move Grant.  

“We entered grants into the system, processed the paperwork and got money out to people. We started out running payments every day, seven days a week. Then it dropped down to a couple of times a week,” explains Sonia.

New Zealand Red Cross set up a temporary office for the grants team in Christchurch. The team was working around the clock to process grant applications for those in need. 

“The effects on people were lasting longer than anyone expected. The independent advice grant went for the longest. It helped people access lawyers to advise them on insurance rights and other issues. A lot of people needed support,” says Sonia.

What started as a need to keep busy for Sonia turned out to be a pivotal moment in her life. 

“It was satisfying. I didn’t realise how much I loved helping people until I got an opportunity to do so much of it. The sheer amount of thank you letters from people who the money had helped was overwhelming,” recalls Sonia. 

Looking forward to recovery

Inspired by her work on the grants team, Sonia joined the Christchurch disaster response team in 2017. 

“After thinking about it for a while, I liked the idea of being with people immediately after a disaster hits,” says Sonia. 

Recovery is a long process and the message from Sonia, 10 years on, is to prioritise your mental health and wellbeing.

“Look after yourself, connect with others, do nice things, go for a walk. Make sure you take that time in doing little bits of self care. It’s easy to get caught up in all the stress and the complications and that can be quite exhausting and hard on the body. It’s really important that we look after ourselves and each other,” says Sonia. 

New Zealand Red Cross knows the recovery process is a long one, and we will be there continuing to support those who need us for as long as it will take. 

 “One of the things I appreciated about the Red Cross was being able to be there for those people and being able to help them through it. That tangible evidence that Red Cross did make a significant difference to so many people and help them through and that was lovely to see.” 

Ready when needed

Our disaster response volunteers train all year round to be ready to deploy, should a disaster happen. From providing first aid to emotional support and support with evacuation, our volunteers are multi-skilled and available to support people affected by a disaster at a moment’s notice. 

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