By Ajay Dahiya

Ajay quoteWhen you think of first responders, who comes to mind? I would wager that you are picturing lights, sirens, and official vehicles. In the case of disaster relief, you might think of FEMA or the national guard.

I bet you didn’t think about the Cajun Navy.

The Cajun Navy is the term given to a makeshift group of volunteers who, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, gathered at a New Orleans mall to mobilize fishing boats and pleasure crafts for water rescue. These volunteers would go on to save as many as 10,000 people from flooded rooftops and homes. In total, as many people in Katrina were saved by friends and neighbors as they were by official agencies.

It is a commonly held myth that when disaster strikes, those impacted are paralyzed by shock and helplessness. Social psychologists have studied this across all types of disasters and found that the exact opposite is true. The first responders in disaster are rarely ever professionals working in an official capacity. In most cases, they are survivors themselves.

A review of the literature concludes that “…citizens often prove to be the most effective kind of emergency personnel. Disaster evaluations invariably show that most lives are actually saved by the ‘average’ citizen.” In most cases, these same citizens stay involved even after emergent needs are met to organize long-term responses, repair damages, and ask questions about why the disaster happened to begin with.

If you are used to the prevailing narrative of the helpless, disempowered victim, this revelation may surprise you. I hope it also challenges you to think more holistically about what “first responses” are worthy of support amidst our current disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic.

At The Pollination Project, we might not have a “cajun navy” but we do have a “pollination nation.” In that our focus is on funding individual frontline grassroots volunteers, I have the benefit of seeing firsthand the efficiency and nimbleness that animates bottom-up approaches. I often marvel at what our changemakers achieve when equipped with belief, support, and a small amount of seed funding.

This week we funded Sandra, a woman in Guatemala coordinating indigenous-led service to Mayan communities. As businesses have closed, food insecurity has skyrocketed. Many of the families within her community were going several days between meals, including children and pregnant women. She found a way to provide for the basic food and hygiene needs of 25 families for a full month, with a seed grant of just $1,000. She has mobilized volunteers to support her work and will be able to implement it immediately.

Sandra Hannen on her last TPP project, before the outbreak of COVID-19

Sandra Hannen on her last TPP project, before the outbreak of COVID-19

The power behind responses like Sandra’s – the factor that supercharges a minimal investment and turns it into enormous impact – is love. The word philanthropy itself is about love, translating to “love of humankind.” What is possible when we act out of love will always exceed what is accomplished when we act out of obligation.

We have now received over 1,700 applications from 50 countries. Each represents a thoughtful, efficient citizen response to serve neighbors, protect the vulnerable, and demonstrate love in action.

I’m grateful for these “first responders.”

I’m grateful to each of you who has donated to help support them.

I’m grateful for our “Pollination Nation” and the chance for all of us to serve at this moment in history.