Volunteering in an earthquake zone | ELPNZ

Volunteering in an earthquake zone

07 February 2012

Rachel Sonius likes to feel useful. And going that extra mile certainly isn’t out of the ordinary for her. As she says, you can decide how involved you want to be.

After the devastating February 22 Christchurch earthquake, she found herself with plenty of time on her hands, and she didn’t hesitate to help 60 English Language Partners’ learners.


Rachel says she and husband Simon were lucky to have little damage to their home in the suburb of Mairehau. After they knew Simon’s family were ok and had helped clean up their street, there was nothing much to do. Without knowing when either would be back at work, Rachel said they didn’t want to just sit around.

However, her involvement with English Language Partners began well before Christchurch and the aftermath of the earthquake. It was after finishing university in Wellington that Rachel trained as a volunteer. “I love language and I love English. The origins of words fascinate me,” she says. She says she’s glad English is her first language as it’s difficult to learn. “Just as you learn one rule, you learn something that goes against it! But reading and writing is vital. Without it how can you read street signs or fill in forms?”


Rachel initially had doubts about whether she had the patience to teach but still went ahead, encouraged by a friend who had trained.
She first worked with a woman from India who lived around the corner. “I don’t drive, so I asked for someone who lived close by.
When she moved to Christchurch, she took up the role of language tutor again. “I was new in Christchurch. I thought this would be a good way to get to know people in the neighbourhood.”


She was paired with Goma Mishra, from Bhutan, who lived just two streets away. “Life would be boring if I didn’t do something a bit different. I have such a lucky life that it’s good to do something for someone else.” Rachel visited Goma every week for three years. “I formed a close bond with the whole family and my visits were never just once a week. I helped with all sorts of things. Student loan applications, buying new glasses, baking sessions - all sorts of things!


“It makes me angry how ‘left on their own’ new people to New Zealand are. After that initial help to get here, families are left to work out so many things for themselves. I don’t know what the family would have done if I hadn’t been there to help. It’s hard to ask for help anyway, let alone ask people to help with things like filling out applications and such.”


When Christchurch became a disaster area, Rachel and Simon were ready to help. “Everyone had all this time, and some people I know spent it sitting around grumbling. When I got an email from Joanna Kuta, English Language Partners’ manager, asking how our learners were faring, I told her I had spoken with Goma, but also asked if was there anything else I could do.”


Rachel and Simon readily took a list of 60 learners located in surrounding suburbs, checked out as much information about food grants and other assistance as they could and set about visiting everyone. “A lot of people had left the city, houses were empty and it was pretty scary going to some places. But I hated the idea of people in fear or trapped at home because they couldn’t understand what was going on or what to do.”


Rachel says that, fortunately, most they visited had power. However, there were five or six households who really needed help.
Rachel contacted her own family to say that if they wanted to give money to help then they could give directly to her. She then took it upon herself to assist those they found in need. “We couldn’t fix broken pipes, so we passed on information where we could. However,the one thing we could do was buy groceries for these families.


“One Afghani family we visited had eight children. Neither parent spoke English, and we talked with their 16-year-old son to find out what they needed. She also visited an elderly Egyptian couple. The husband was bed-ridden before the quake after a heart attack, and his wife was trying to keep their home clean with just tissues and water. Rachel bought cleaning products for them as well as bread, milk and fruit.


She remembers a large Eritrean family who were receiving food parcels. However, because the husband was diabetic, he couldn’t eat much from the parcels. Rachel and Simon spent a long time in the supermarket figuring out what he could eat, and took them a special box of food. “There was lots we couldn’t do, but I’m proud to say we did what we could!”


Six months after the February earthquake they realised things were going to get worse before they got better, and Rachel and Simon took the chance to move back to Wellington. “I became so close to Goma that I almost feel disloyal at the idea of taking on another learner! But I know that once we’re sure where we’re going to be living, I will want to help another family. The rewards are so great.

"It was sad to leave Christchurch but I know I'll be back."

Writer: Justine Storey