“He places a desire in your heart, and then he puts people around you to help you. All we are is just willing. There’s no way we could’ve orchestrated this. No way.” www.globalvessels.org

Worldwide Shelters: Shelter after the storm

Many have seen images of the tent cities that pop up so quickly after a devastating hurricane or earthquake. So often, they are slow to come down again, flapping in the wind with every successive storm, unless they are just blown away. Worldwide Shelters, a nonprofit in Glenwood, believes there’s a better way to provide shelter to people hit by natural disasters. It’s called transitional housing.

Made in the United States of galvanized steel, the frames interlock with minimal tools. No construction skills are required.

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“It’s almost like a Tinkertoy thing,” describes Jeannie McMahon, executive director of Worldwide Shelters.
In the short term, a tarp can be thrown over it. In the long term, a metal roof and walls made of local resources can make the shelter more permanent.

Worldwide Shelters was started in Glenwood five years ago by five businessmen as a for-profit venture.

The men, who all wish to remain anonymous, moved on except one western Howard County resident who still believed that transitional housing was the answer to long-term disaster recovery and for poor countries with large groups of people who have no shelter, such as Indonesia and Haiti. The organization achieved nonprofit status in 2009.

Taking the helm of the organization last January, McMahon, who also lives in Glenwood, is tasked with finding partnering agencies and persuading them of the value of transitional shelters. She also needs to raise money for the shelter costs, about $1,000 each. Since Worldwide Shelters’ administrative costs are completely funded by the anonymous founder, McMahon says that 100 percent of donations and grant monies go to the shelters. Her strategy is to get them erected in needy countries where nongovernmental agencies are already at work so they will consider buying them instead of tents.

“The transitional shelter model is the next generation,” says McMahon. “Hopefully, the next time there’s a hurricane in Honduras, people won’t be sending tents.”

 She and her son, Danny, 23, joined a volunteer group from California-based Samaritan’s Feet in Harere, Zimbabwe, this summer to put up six shelters. Zimbabwe has the highest rate of hyper-inflation in the world, according to McMahon. By partnering with Samaritan’s Feet, which has relationships in the country, McMahon hopes to bypass the local red tape and any corruption that might exist.

The nonprofit could’ve used a partner like that in Haiti, where 12,000 transitional shelters were sent. “It was problematic. There was so much corruption,” she says.

 Three people can put up one shelter in less than a day. The Zimbabwe team hoped to have all six erected in the five days allotted to the project. Worldwide Shelters also will provide roofing material, one window and one door for each shelter. Later, local residents will build walls with bricks made in Zimbabwe to make the shelter permanent.

“With this concept you have a lot of buy-in from the end user,” says McMahon. She’s also looking for a partner in Indonesia, where the shelters will be finished off with bamboo walls.

That’s all part of being “culturally correct,” says McMahon.

She also is working on fundraising and is looking for platforms to share with others.

“This cause resonates with women,” she says. One of her ideas is to find women to host “Moms for Shelter” cocktail parties.

McMahon’s background is in sales, and she also made curtains for 20 years. As she became more involved in local fundraising activities at her kids’ schools, she remembered how energizing the work could be.

“I felt like I got my mojo back,” says McMahon. It was through her PTA and high school Booster activities that she was asked to join Worldwide Shelters.

One of her first jobs was to get the office out of her house and into a rented space at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Glenwood. A shelter will also be erected on church property, according to the church rector, Dina Els van Klaveren.

“It would be great for our parish community to see this homegrown nonprofit and to learn more about shelter,” says van Klaveren.

“It’s like pulling puppies out of the water. They shouldn’t be there. Someone’s got to go upstream and figure out why it’s happening, to change the system,” she says, likening McMahon to that person of change. “She’s working both ends of the stream: the immediate need and the long-term change of systems. She has a big task ahead of her.”

McMahon believes in her cause. Recently, postgrad Capstone Naval students have chosen to do their theses on Worldwide Shelters’ Series 1100 Transitional Shelter.

“This is great news from the advocacy perspective, since the U.S. Navy is the largest deployer of post-disaster aid,” she says. “I have the feeling that if we can get this going it could become the norm. It’s such a great idea.” www.worldwideshelters.org