Four words written on a piece of paper: “shelter, warm, comfort, dignity.” This is where ShelterBox began. Tom Henderson, the original founder of ShelterBox, turned with his idea to his local Rotary Club in Helston, England for support, and they took up the mantle. Today, over 20 years later, Rotary International is still a key partner. Here in the U.S., Kerri Murray is at the helm of the largest ShelterBox affiliate in the world. Since 2015, Kerri has personally overseen relief efforts for some of the most dire events in recent memory, including conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and most recently in Ukraine, an earthquake in Haiti, a typhoon in the Philippines and famines in Africa, just to name a few.
Chris Straigis – 00:01
Welcome to Scrappy, the podcast about small companies doing big things. I’m your host, Chris Straigis. I walked by a sign not too long ago in downtown Philadelphia. That read “start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” It really stopped me in my tracks, three simple sentences, but a profound and moving manifesto. We all have within us to power to affect change, I really do believe that. And I also believe that as a general rule, most humans when confronted with another suffering will skew heavily towards compassion. Now where those two traits intersect, you’ll find positive action; action that solves big problems or helps to alleviate the pain of another. For those special people who find themselves in the middle bit of that venn diagram, they do in fact begin where they are with what they have, and then they take action. Usually in our stories, we focus on a person singular who took up the mission-driven call to use their skill or talent, or simply their will and drive to make the world a better place in some specific way.
Chris Straigis – 01:22
It’s easy to point to them and say, look, look at what that person is doing. We’ve always recognized, however that behind many, if not, most of the people we feature, there’s a team who also take up the mantle, motivated by the work or the cause, or even simply inspired by another person taking action. Today, we focus not just on the origins and the current leader of a company, ShelterBox, but we also turn a well deserved light on the selfless brave, and in some cases, heroic difference makers who are on the frontline, the boots on the ground for this global aid organization.
Chris Straigis – 01:59
Four words written on a piece of paper: “shelter, warm, comfort, dignity.” This is where ShelterBox began. In a 2008 CNN interview, Tom Henderson, the original founder of ShelterBox, describes the epiphany he had while watching news footage of disaster relief efforts.
Chris Straigis – 02:27
In that moment in 1999, his compassion for the scene turned into an idea, then into action. “If people have lost everything” Henderson asked, “why should they lose their dignity as well?” The idea was simple. Provide disaster relief victims with an easily transportable kit that included the most basic needs for survival: shelter, clean water tools. He eventually turned with this idea to his local Rotary Club in Helston, England for support, and they took up the mantle. Today, over 20 years later, Rotary International is still a key partner, with its global reach in hubs in nearly every corner of the world. Kerri Murray is at the helm of the largest ShelterBox affiliate in the world here in the United States. Kerri’s been President of ShelterBox US since 2015 and has personally overseen relief efforts for some of the most dire events in recent memory, including conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and most recently in Ukraine, an earthquake in Haiti, a typhoon in the Philippines and famines in Africa, just to name a few. Kerri, thank you so much for talking to me today. Uh, I usually like to start by following the breadcrumbs into the past to help paint a picture of how one ended up doing the work they do now, but I wanna change it up a bit today and start by asking this, what do those four words mean to you? “Shelter, warm, comfort, dignity.”
Kerri Murray – 04:02
For me, those four words represent really one of my reasons for being, and certainly the work that we do every day at ShelterBox. Those words are at the core of why we exist. Coming back from the Ukraine, Poland border where I was working, I think those words are even more important to me than ever before. And they represent to me that people who’ve been affected by disasters and some of the worst humanitarian crises in our generation have the basic things that they need to sustain their life and to enable their recovery. And I think those four words are at the core of what we do every day. And it’s, it’s why I do the work I do at ShelterBox.
Chris Straigis – 05:00
That’s a great answer. And it says a lot about why you’re doing the work that you do. Most of our shows hone in on the specific key person who’s behind the wheel of an organization or movement. But I also think ShelterBox is such a great example of the hard work, dedication and shared mission of so many people, especially your SRTs or ShelterBox response teams. We’ll get into that. But I think that your personal story might just be a great analogy to step into that broader scope. So I wanna touch a bit on you and your path. Let’s do a quick, deep dive. You were born and raised in the proud new England area. So it’s the 1980s, in the small town of Naugatuck, Connecticut. A young Kerri Murray is sitting in her room listening to, I don’t know, maybe the Pixies and the Cars, thinking about the future. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Kerri Murray – 05:53
Well, in the 1980s, I was playing on the softball team, uh, at my school as well as on the boys’ baseball team. And there’s no question that I really was dreaming about being the first woman on the Boston Red Sox. And I am a huge baseball fan, I’m a huge Red Sox fan. It didn’t pan out quite as I expected, but that’s probably, uh, what I was thinking.
Chris Straigis – 06:25
In 1991, you made a big step into your future at Providence College, right up the road in Rhode Island. You took a path toward political science. Why was that your focus?
Kerri Murray – 06:38
You know, I always had a, just an affinity to public service. I just always felt this burning desire to be part of the political process I had worked and been part of on some campaigns in, in high school and grammar school. And I just wanted to find a way to serve. And when I got to Providence College, what was so unique was that about a mile and a half down the road was the State House. And I learned early on when I started school that I actually could intern and I started interning for a state representative there. And then I was hooked. I just found myself in the throes of Rhode Island state politics. And I absolutely loved it. And actually, um, my last year of college at Providence, I ended up really going to night school there because I was really just so swept up in working in Rhode Island politics that my last year of school, I became a lobbyist and I became a lobbyist for an environmental group, which is an incredible humanitarian organization called Save the Bay. And I started lobbying for them. I was their first lobbyist and really advocating against the dredging of Narragansett Bay. And that was, uh, an incredible opportunity for me. So that was my last year of college, and then I graduated in the spring of 1995.
Chris Straigis – 08:10
Facing the realities of graduation. Kerri told me that she had decisions to make. And with her tuition loans coming due, she turned to corporate work and in a fateful move, landed with a global pharmaceutical giant.
Kerri Murray – 08:25
In the late 1990s, I started working for GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals and I spent 13 years there and it was the most transformational experience, learning deep business skills and working both in the United States and in Europe. But in really in 2004, my whole life changed. I was pregnant with my first and only daughter and in an instant, everything went wrong and, um, she stopped breathing and I had an emergency C-section and they had said that she had a cord wrapped around her neck many times, three times. And they said she hadn’t grown for the last 10 weeks of my pregnancy and they didn’t think she’d make it. But eventually they said that if she lives, she’ll never talk because she had paralyzed vocal cords. And so that was really a transformation for me in realizing that so many parts of the world being pregnant can be a death sentence.
Kerri Murray – 09:29
And in many parts of the world, I would not have made it. My daughter certainly would not have. The difference was we had access, right? Access that so many people in the world don’t have. During that experience, I started getting involved again, on the side, with a lot of different humanitarian organizations, just volunteering, anything I could, whether it was my time, whether it was resources. And then in 2009, we had a new CEO that came in at GlaxoSmithKline and really his agenda was trying to transform the industry, the pharmaceutical industry. And he wanted to do that by starting with our company. And he tapped me and a handful of other executives from around the world and he asked us if we would be willing to do nonprofit assignments.
Kerri Murray – 10:24
And so at the end of 2009, I was embedded into an organization in California called Direct Relief. And they had been founded in 1948, but were having a lot of issues just, uh, overall with sustainability. Expenses exceeded their revenue every year, they were having trouble, uh, really raising funding for the organization, and awareness. And so I came in to help them on a six-month assignment. And I was on the job for a month when the earthquake in Haiti hit. And that was a disaster that was heard around the world. It was devastating. It killed hundreds of thousands of people. It displaced a million and a half people in an instant. And I went to Haiti and I, and I saw that it was these incredible nonprofit organizations on the ground that were really filling gaps around basic needs, food, water, shelter, access to medical care. And that was the first time I actually saw ShelterBox. Um, that was one of the largest responses in their history. They were everywhere providing temporary shelter to Haitians who’d been displaced in an instant.
Kerri Murray – 11:45
I fell in love with humanitarian relief work and particularly disaster relief work in that experience. And I came back to, uh, from Haiti and I just realized that I could leverage everything I ever learned in my corporate life and I could apply it to these nonprofits. And ultimately it didn’t mean we were making more money. It meant that we could save more lives. And so I got off the corporate in 2010 after my six-month assignment and I spent the next five-and-a-half years with that organization until one day I got the call from ShelterBox in 2015 to come serve as their president.
Chris Straigis – 12:34
Just so that we’re all on the same page. Can you describe ShelterBox for me? And what’s at the core of your mission.
Kerri Murray – 12:41
We’re a global humanitarian relief organization that provides emergency shelter and essential household items to people who’ve been displaced in an instant, either by a natural disaster or by a crisis situation, conflict situation, civil war situation. And so the center of gravity of what we do is the provision of the shelter. And then the other things that we provide that you think about that when you need to set up household very quickly, that are essential for life. Things like light. So you’ve lost power in so many of these instances, we include inside the box, waterproof solar lanterns. We also see often in disaster situations, contamination of the water source, so we include a water purification unit, containers to store purified water. You see aid organizations bring in food and water, but what are you gonna boil water in? What are you gonna prepare a hot meal in? So we include a whole stainless steel cook set. Then we have mosquito nets to protect against vector-borne disease in wet conditions. We include everything from blankets to ground mats that you can sleep on, as well as a tool set. And it’s all about really giving these displaced families the tools that they need to enable their self recovery and shelter is the absolute first step in the recovery process.
Chris Straigis – 14:11
Tom Henderson originally took his idea to his local Rotary Club in that small town in England. And they provided some key early support to get it off the ground. Now today, Rotary International is a worldwide partner with ShelterBox and a key element in the speed and scale of your disaster relief efforts. Can you tell me a bit more about this partnership and the value that it brings to your organization?
Kerri Murray – 14:36
It was a simple, but great idea. Um, we’ve since become at ShelterBox, we’re a separate 501 C3 nonprofit. We’re a separate group. However, we remain the official project partner of Rotary International in emergencies. Now, across the world, there are 35,000 Rotary Clubs in 200 countries. And so Rotarians often answer the call and there are often in sources of information when awful things are happening in the world. Some of the first folks that we talk to, you know, even in the, in this whole situation with the Ukraine crisis, you know, the first folks we were talking to were Rotarians on the ground in the region to really get a good understanding of what was happening. So they often serve as providing information on the disaster or on the conflict situation. They often serve as volunteers locally, when does, especially in natural disaster situations, they mobilize and help us with logistics, supply chain training, putting tents up. So they are one very important partner in this global humanitarian mission.
Chris Straigis – 15:47
Now, as I mentioned earlier, uh, I wanna zoom in and shine a light on some of the incredible people that have taken up the cause. And in some cases are even putting their lives on the line to serve. It’s one thing to prepare and ship your boxes into a disaster zone. There’s sourcing materials, assembly, the transport logistics. But then there’s the very real challenge of the so-called last mile. You have to get large shipments of your relief product into some of the worst conditions geographically or even geopolitically. Obviously you can’t use FedEx or UPS for this. Instead you use SRTs. At a high level, can you describe these amazing people who are at ground zero for ShelterBox?
Kerri Murray – 16:30
When we were first started, our founders created something called the SRT, the ShelterBox Response Team. And these are volunteers that come from all walks of life, from all over the world. And essentially they apply to become a first responder with our organization. They go through about a year of training and one in 30 people will pass the program and become an SRT member with our organization. And so these are the folks that really help an enable ShelterBox to scale up a response and serve thousands of families when something really horrible happens. And this work can be extraordinarily challenging. It’s very physically demanding, uh, but it’s incredibly rewarding for these folks. And, um, it’s the only way that we’re able to really do the work that we do at ShelterBox, because at any given time, I mean, we’re responding all over the world. In addition to the Ukraine crisis right now we have, uh, a huge deployment going on in the Philippines for super typhoon Rai, which hit last December. We are deploying aid to Yemen, to Syria, to Cameroon, Ethiopia. So we are working in some of the most challenging disaster, but also conflict situations in our world. And we couldn’t do it without this incredible army of, of response team members.
Chris Straigis – 18:01
I’m sure every one of your SRTs comes away from a mission with some incredible stories. Can you share one or two stories about specific people or events that are the stuff of ShelterBox legend?
Kerri Murray – 18:14
Our organization works extensively in a country called Cameroon and we work in a refugee camp called the Minawao camp. And our claim to fame in this camp is that ShelterBox is the only provider of tents to new arrivals at this camp. And a few years back, uh, our teams met Esther. Esther is from Nigeria, Boko, Nigeria. And as a young teenager, Boko Haram, the militant group, stormed her village and she was with her family. And in the middle of the night, they killed her father. They raped and murdered her mother. They killed her brothers and they told her to run, which meant she was likely gonna be target practice.
Kerri Murray – 19:07
But Esther miraculously made it to the border of Cameroon and with a group of girls from her village, she was taken into Cameroon by security forces and she was left at the Minawao camp. And for so many Nigerian refugees who make it out the Minawao camp is the first step in their recovery. And really what changed her life was she took a sewing class at the camp and she became the finest seamstress of her block at the camp. And for these refugees, they could live for on average of 17 years at a refugee camp. And she’s become a seamstress, she’s married, she’s now had two children and she supports her family on her income. But she is indicative of the type of people that we work to find every day at ShelterBox and help enabling their recovery. And sometimes it’s newly displaced and sometimes it’s the long term displaced, but Esther is really the reason we do this work every day to help her with the basic things that she needs to help sustain her family when she’s gone through something, just absolutely horrible.
Kerri Murray – 20:18
Another story that comes to mind, I flew into Kraków, where our response team is working and we coordinate within the UN system. I actually went with one of my teammates and we went down to work on the border, the Ukraine border, just a few miles over the border into Poland. And we were working at the main train station over the border where 20,000 new refugees are coming every single day from Ukraine into Poland. And it was it’s the middle of winter. It’s extraordinarily cold. The people stepping off the train station were women, children, elderly, disabled, and then dogs and cats. And I saw very few men because if you’re between the age of 18 and 60, you’re forced to stay behind a fight. And so families are having to make these unbelievable decisions and choices about fleeing their country and oftentimes leaving family behind.
Kerri Murray – 21:18
And that was what I experienced. I talked to one woman, Julia, who spent five days fleeing the country on foot on bus and then train with her 10 year old son. And when I met her, she was absolutely exhausted. She wasn’t relieved. She was an absolute fear because she told me she had to leave behind her 22 year old son. And not only was she afraid, would she ever see her son again? Would her home be gone when? And, and if she could go back to her country? She also had had no idea where she was gonna sleep that night. And so, you know, we’re also seeing this moment right now, this situation, which I believe, I mean, we’re hearing it’s the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II in Europe. And it’s incredible to look at the numbers. We’re approaching 3 million refugees. Millions internally displaced within Ukraine. I’ve never seen our refugee crisis situation moving so quickly like this one.
Chris Straigis – 22:25
Kerri, let’s dive in a little bit more on this current crisis in Ukraine. What, if anything makes this situation unique compared to other relief efforts that you’ve managed with ShelterBox?
Kerri Murray – 22:39
So what makes this Ukraine crisis so different right now is the scale and the severity and how fast moving this is. And so with many conflict situations that we’re now, you know, at the 11 year anniversary of our response in the Syrian refugee crisis. I mean, that was slower moving, obviously hugely consequential, half the pre-war population has been displaced. But this Ukraine crisis is moving so quickly. So we now you have nearly 3 million refugees, millions internally displaced. The numbers are expected to increase in the days and weeks and months to come. And that you have 12 million people already in need of humanitarian assistance in a country of, of 44 million. So what we’re seeing is that the, you know, the human costs are mounting each day. You know at ShelterBox we’re also having to do things very different to meet the unique needs of this situation. Different needs inside Ukraine versus what we’re seeing with refugees for people internally displaced, you know, they they’re living in damaged homes.
Kerri Murray – 23:50
Um, so it’s it’s shelter kits to help repair their homes. They’re in evacuation center, sleeping on the floor. So it’s mattresses, it’s blankets, it’s coats and hygiene kits. And then for refugees, it’s the basic things to help them sustain their family. So it’s small cash allotments to help buy food and medicine, it’s coats because we’re in the middle of the winter, it’s cold, it’s hygiene supplies because they fled without anything, and it’s basic things for, for their personal care. So, and you see this, you know, the refugees that are fleeing, it’s not to just one neighboring country it’s to the neighboring countries to Ukraine, but it’s also across the EU. So this is gonna be a fast moving refugee crisis situation that isn’t getting, going away and it’s only getting worse. And the UN is now estimating that there could be between eight to 10 million refugees all told.
Chris Straigis – 24:49
I mentioned in my intro, some of the disaster responses that you’ve overseen. And now we’re talking about this crisis in Ukraine, which is still so very troubling and so raw. But when I hear you talk, you are so enthusiastic and optimistic about your mission. What gets you up every morning? What drives you to continue to do this work in the face of the things that you deal with every day?
Kerri Murray – 25:17
I feel lucky every day, uh, back to 2004, I feel fortunate that I’m here. I feel fortunate that my daughter’s here and I know that I have the ability to really help people who are some of the most vulnerable people in our planet today. And that I could do that through my work at ShelterBox. And that, you know, it’s my first deployment I ever had, when I mentioned to you, in Haiti, I remember feeling really down and really sad. I mean the first place I went when I hit Port-au-Prince in 2010 was a ward with babies and it was awful. And I remember I was with a board member at the time and she kind of pinched me and kind of slapped my face gently. And she said, “Kerri, you know, you gotta perk up. We’re here to give these, these families hope.” And something shifted in that moment in me, and I’ve, I’ve, I’ve, I’ve changed forever on how I really envision this work, is that that is my job. I’m there to bring hope, I’m there to help provide the basic tools and just the, the basic things people need to help rebuild their lives. But also that these basic things that we’re providing can transform someone’s life. I just know that I’m in the right spot and this is where I’m meant to, to be. And where I’m meant to serve.
Chris Straigis – 26:40
You mentioned earlier a pivotal point in your life with the traumatic birth of your daughter. Now fast forwarding to today. Can you share how that turned out?
Kerri Murray – 26:52
Not only did her vocal cords restore, uh, and it was a while she, she didn’t have any voice for the first six months of her life. Uh, but today she’s 18, she’s a senior in high school and, uh, she’s a singer nonetheless. Um, she was one of the youngest contestants ever on the 2020 season of American Idol. And she, uh, she’s actually just went on tour.
Chris Straigis – 27:31
ShelterBox is currently hard at work in Ukraine and around the world to learn more about their missions, to donate, or maybe even to go through the process of becoming one of their elite SRTs, visit ShelterBox.org. You can also learn more about Rotary International and even find your local chapter at rotary.org. They’re always grateful for the support in their local communities. And you can find links and transcripts for today’s show at scrappypod.com. As always, thanks for listening to Scrappy.