There is Something about SOS -- by Denny Hamilton

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SOS Children’s Villages International is a global organization launched in 1949 by an Austrian named Hermann Gmeiner.  The organization has established operations in 140 countries.  What they do is go into a new country, meet with government officials, obtain approval to operate, find a plot of land in an appropriate location, assure access and a sustainable water supply, build substantial homes, hire and train staff and take in orphans.  Children can become part of the program from age three months and older.  Children live with a surrogate mother, go to either a local school or to a school inside the SOS compound, then to a local high school.  They reside in the village until they are 18 and then can move into a city or town nearby where SOS operates youth hostels for boys and girls.  The can pursue and apprenticeship, a vocational training center or a university.  SOS continues to provide support until the now young adults reach the age of 24 years.


In 2015, SOS decided that, since it was one of the largest organizations working with children, and since children are the primary victims of disasters, they would do well to have an emergency response department.  Global Emergency Response is the department I have been working with on a part-time basis since February, 2016.


Serbia and Macedonia

In late December, 2015, my friend Paul Giannone, with whom I had worked at CARE USA when we were there together and again when he was  at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was asked by SOS Children’s Villages International (CVI) to provide support to their refugee support efforts in the Balkans.  In January, he contacted me and wondered if I would be interested to join him there to assist with staff training.  I said, “yes” immediately.  He was involved in assessing the situation, the SOS operation and the capacity needs.  He and I exchanged ideas and drafts of competency-based emergency training outlines.  Finally, in February, the Global Emergency Response Department (GET) of SOS invited me to join Paul in Belgrade, Serbia.


I met the National Director, the Emergency Manager and the headquarters staff who were supporting the SOS efforts to support the flood of refugees.  Once they arrived in Greece, as soon as they could, the refugees began moving north.  They crossed the border into Macedonia, where the UN and International NGOs had set up a transit camp. Water, food, clothing, shoes, backpacks, blankets and medicine were provided to those in need water.  Some were on the move again in hours.  Others in the next day or two.  Filling every seat in local charter buses, they move the length of Macedonia to a camp near the border with Serbia.  Here they wait overnight and then cross the border to a transit camp in Southern Serbia.


To understand what role SOS personnel played in this crisis, one has to understand a few basics. Based in Austria, founded in 1949, by Hermann Gmeiner, SOS is one of the largest NGOs on the planet.  They have a staff of 38,000 people and operations in 140 countries.  Their mission…providing a loving home for orphaned children.  It started when Gmeiner, an orphan himself, decided to do something about the plight of orphans.  He raised money and started a program which involves entering a country, assessing the need, negotiating with government, obtaining a piece of land and building good quality homes.  Each home has at least “mother” who is a trained local woman.  She cares for the kids in her home.  They go to local schools.  Any orphan child over 3 months old can enter an SOS village and be cared for until they are 18 years old.  It does not end there.  At 18, boys and girls move into separate sections of local youth hostels.  There room and board are covered as is tuition in local vocational schools and even at universities until there reach the age of 24 years. 


Just over two years ago, SOS decided that, since it was one of the largest children’s organizations, and since children are more likely than adults to be the victims of disasters or human conflict, it should become involved in emergency management.  The Balkan Refugee Crisis was the first major challenge of GER.


Paul and I worked 12-14 hours a day – meeting with field staff, government officials, staff of partner organizations, assessing and documenting the situation in the several locations in Macedonia and Serbia where refugees were transitioning. SOS was involved in providing safe places for children – child friendly spaces (CFS) – mother and baby “corners”, activities for youth, distribution of non-food items, and IT centers – places where people can charge phones and use computers to get on line.  Child Friendly Spaces were jam packed bee hives of activity – kids drawing, playing games, coloring, giving and getting smiles and hugs. You can’t fool kids.  They know if what you show is genuine love and care.  The kids knew there was love here. The Mother and Baby Corners provided quiet, safe places for mothers to nurse their babies.  IT locations were always busy.  If there were people waiting, a user had 15 minutes until he or she had to rotate out.  When adults were not doing their thing, kids used the computers to surf, watch cartoons, listen to music and play games.  Some adults and kids needed psycho-social support and, with the help of interpreters, they had helpful ears to hear their stories.


In April, Paul and I, with the help of Irma Harjo, and a great support team, conducted two Basic Emergency Response Courses in Belgrade for SOS staff from Serbia and Macedonia and one from Austria. The courses covered a range of competencies and topics including: personal awareness, situation assessment and analysis, emergency response planning, processes, coordination, stress and trauma, the importance of establishing standard operating procedures, emergency settlements, personal and site security and more. 


We were fortunate to have interested and enthusiastic participants, who wanted to learn and have fun doing it.  It was a personal and professional pleasure to work with Paul and with the entire group of people involved in supporting and attending the courses.


The E-Roster

While we were still in Serbia, SOS GER announced the launch of the ERoster.  The Emergency Roster is an effort to provide trained and experienced SOS emergency staff to SOS Countries that are in need of emergency support.  Any SOS staff member can apply, and, if approved, be added to the roster.  Shortly after the launch of the roster, I met Maria Tomas, who had been assigned the responsibility of organizing and managing the roster.  She and I have been colleagues ever since.  We have collaborated on interviewing applicants, working out procedural issues, exploring on-line learning possibilities, and in developing SOS-specific learning opportunities for ERoster members and other interested SOS staff.  Our collaboration continues.


SOS Bulgaria

While I was still based in Serbia, I was invited to conduct a course for staff in Bulgaria.  Despite the fact that Bulgaria had been the first country in Europe to build a fence to keep refugees out, there was a refugee center in Sophia and a camp of refugees near the Greek border. I was asked to assist SOS Staff in Bulgaria to assess the situation and identify ways that SOS Bulgaria might support the refugee population.  In the end, it was decided that no effort would be made at the moment.  Subsequently, a project is now being considered.


Two interesting things happened in Bulgaria that I want to share.  In the process of conducting the workshop I offered to do a one day workshop on emotional intelligence.  We opened it to the whole staff and 12 people attended.  On the bus ride from Belgrade to Sophia, I met Sylvia, a young woman who is an architect.  She had been sitting across from me and was reading an book with and English title.  At the border crossing, we struck up and conversation and she invited me to have dinner that week with her and her boyfriend.  That turned into an invitation to her to join the EI workshop and then to a tour of the old city, which they took me on to show me the area where they were going to conduct a preservation project.  It was a beautiful tour.  I have stayed in touch and below is a picture she sent to me of an art in the park awareness raising activity they sponsored during their summer on the project.




SOS Armenia

While I was still in Europe, I was invited to conduct a basic emergency training course in Armenia. For months before I arrived there had been cross-border territorial conflict with Azerbaijan. One purpose of this visit was to work with the team from the Children’s Village in Indjevan to develop a preparedness and evacuation plan.  The village was located just 5 kilometers from the border and artillery fire was common in the area.  The other Children’s Village in Kotayk also developed a preparedness plan, but theirs was about receiving the evacuees from Indjevan.  The SOS Family Services Program also developed and emergency project plan for former Armenia citizens who had migrated to Syria and were now returning to Armenia because of the war in Syria.


SOS Ethiopia Round 1

In September of 2016 I was invited to go to Ethiopia to facilitate a project planning exercise for the newly Emergency Department in Addis Ababa.  I have to say that it was one of the best planning workshops I have had the pleasure of being involved in.  We had SOS and government personnel engaged in intensive discussions that led to changes in perspective on both sides.  We created a very good project plan. The project was launched in January of this year.



Round 2 – Drought Assessment

I returned to Ethiopia in February to participate in a drought assessment in the Somali Region.  The drought covered a much larger than just Eastern Ethiopia.  Kenya was in bad shape and the drought was very bad in South Sudan and in Somalia, because, in addition to all the problems associated with a drought, there was an on-going civil war in each of those two countries.  Any natural disaster is exacerbated by conflict.  Fortunately in Ethiopia, conflict was not a problem.


The first thing we did was assess the circumstances in two districts, Gode and Kalefo.  These are two rural districts where the main source of livelihoods is livestock.  Most of the households are pastoralists.  The have herd animals that graze in the open land around the villages.  In response to a request from the regional authorities, in December, SOS had launched a water trucking project.   In thirteen villages

In Gode and Kalefo, twice a week, a twelve-cubic meter water tanker delivers water.  The circumstances were bad when the water deliveries began two months earlier.  Now they were very serious.  We first visited the local government offices and then several villages.  The information we received form the District Administrator and the head of the Disaster Preparedness and Response Department was verified when we talked with community leaders and community members.  Eighty percent of cattle and sheep had died for lack of water, as had 40% of goats and camels.  The water was keeping the humans alive, but not their livestock.  Many of the pastoralists moved their cattle from one area to another and they, too, lost their herds.  As one might expect, households of people who moved with their herds, when the water and their animals were gone, they moved near to each of these thirteen villages, where they might get water.   After these initial visits, we sent an urgent appeal to SOS to extend the water trucking project at least through April, when the seasonal rains normally start.  Thankfully, the request was approved. 


In a drought, lack of water is the central issue and water touches everything else.  In the meetings with community members, they verified the livestock losses, which for the migrating people who had moved near to the villages, were worse.  Entire herds had been lost.  I remember the words of two women we talked with in different villages.  They each said, “we greatly appreciate the water, but we can’t eat the water.” Food shortages were now the greatest concern.  Income is generated by the sale of animals and animal products.  That money buys other food items, flour, sugar, rice, beans, pasta.  No water, no livestock.  No livestock, no money.  No money, no food. 


[The Water is Life slide presentation I prepared to support our request for the water trucking extension is also available on this website.]


The Assessment Team prepared a drought relief and recovery proposal that included the distribution of food for households, fodder for the remaining animals, and the introduction of water generating and water storage devices.  It also had a longer-term recovery component with included the distribution of livestock to encourage the restocking of animal herds.  The Drought Relief and Recovery Project (DRRP) was submitted in to SOS Headquarters in early March. 


Round 2 – Basic Emergency Management Training for ERRP

\Immediately after the assessment was complete and the project proposal submitted, members of the team and I flew and drove to Harar.  This was the headquarters of the Emergency Relief and Recovery Project that we had planned in September.  A basic emergency management course had been planned.  The workshop was attended by SOS staff and government representatives from several departments who were engaged with the project.  The course focused on competencies related to situation and partnership analysis, assessment, preparedness and response planning, negotiation, coordination, contingency and evacuation planning.  The participants were interested and enthusiastic throughout. 


The E Roster


Since June of 2016, I have had the pleasure of working with Maria Tomas, who is the person managing the SOS Emergency Roster.  Following the launch of the E Roster in May, SOS Staff from around the globe began signing up for the E Roster.  Maria, sometimes with me involved, interviewed each applicant.  In most cases, it was clear that some emergency management study was necessary.  So, we explored on-line learning courses that were available and recommended some to the roster members.  We also saw the need to develop some learning opportunities that were more customized to the needs of SOS.  So, I began developing on-line courses.  These have since moved into webinars and we will begin presenting webinars in October.  Thirteen possibilities are under discussion.




In May, SOS began a new program focused on Emergency Preparedness at the Children’s Village level.  In Armenia, where I stayed in a Children’s Village in Kotayk, one or our purposes was to create an evacuation plan in the event that Indjevan had to be evacuated.  While I was in Gode, I stayed in the CV there.  Remember, there was a serious drought in the area.  I was having a conversation with the Village Director and I asked him what he would do if he woke up one morning and 400 people outside his gate who wanted food.  His answer was “we would share what we have.”  And, I wondered what if there were 400 more people the next day?  He knew he needed a plan.  Several other SOS people realized this need at the same time and the EPREP was the result.  They have now planned to conduct risk and vulnerability workshops in Children’s Villages in 10 countries (Ecuador, Mozambique and Niger have been completed).


The “Something” of the title of this piece has to do with values, attitudes and principles I have found throughout the organization.  “We will share what we have” is one.  The sincere demonstrations of love for children, displayed by the mothers who care for the children, the directors and teachers and administrators I have met in villages and in offices in all the countries mentioned here and by those in headquarters is another.  SOS people understand the basic needs of all human beings and focus on assuring that parentless children are loved and cared for in their own countries, and that children  in crisis environments get caring support.  That is something!









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