Final Exam

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From practicality to reality 

Clanton’s reticence is standard ShelterBox procedure. 

When I visited Cornwall, the organization wouldn’t allow me to see all aspects of its training, such as the nightly debriefing sessions. Nor was I allowed to report on everything I did see. 

Keeping the lid on certain particulars of its training regimen is a key element of the program’s success. Going into a deployment, ShelterBox responders have no idea what surprises they might encounter. Neither, reasons ShelterBox, should its trainees as they approach their final exam. As Clanton puts it, “You need to be you reacting in those situations.”

Still, having seen the training procedures up close, and without tipping ShelterBox’s hand, here is what I would tell a candidate heading to the dismal barrens of Cornwall.  Expect to eat little and sleep even less. Expect bad breaks and worse weather. Expect disquiet piled upon dread. Expect the trainers and shadows to both teach and test. Most of all, expect the unexpected – and then expect more of the unexpected immediately on its heels.

That’s part of the rigor of the final exam. It’s a ShelterBox tactic – simulating what so often happens in real life – to follow up a dramatic, even dangerous situation with, say, a simulated high-pressure meeting with key representatives from the United Nations or some other humanitarian organization. 

No matter what they’ve just endured, trainees must succinctly answer detailed queries, while asking essential questions of their own. 

“You really have to stay focused,” says Morris. “You can’t be on autopilot. It was very taxing.” Even mundane tasks can take an unexpected twist, as when a police chief agrees to provide a necessary visa only if the trainees guarantee tents to police officers who have lost their homes in a flood, a violation of ShelterBox policy. 

Along the way, trainees also acquire some advanced medical skills. “We get experienced medical providers to do really visceral training in a range of scenarios we hope to never experience,” says Jones. “But we know that if they do occur, our responders will be able to deal with them when they are on deployment.”

Another scenario, set at a temporary shelter, prompted an unexpected emotional response from an Australian woman whose learning curve demonstrated just how effective the ShelterBox training can be. That’s a story I can tell you. 

  1. During a late-night exercise Rotaractor Katelyn Winkworth, right, goes over tasks with her teammates.

  2. Winkworth reacts to the latest exercise instructions. The amount of information the teams needed to grasp during the training was dense.

  3. Winkworth slips poles into a ShelterBox tent. It’s one of the first steps to setting up a tent. 

  4. Winkworth reads her security document during a late-night exercise. 

  5. Winkworth thinks about her team’s strategy for the next day’s training activities.  

  6. Winkworth prepares a ShelterBox tent during one of the last exercises. ShelterBox trainers judged how effectively the teams could put up a tent. 

Katelyn Winkworth inherited from her parents a zeal for performing good deeds. The president of the Rotaract Club of Brisbane Rivercity, the 27-year-old travels around Australia as a health promotion officer working with indigenous people. 

“I go into rural communities, figure out some of the big health issues, and design programs to address those issues,” she says. “It can be pretty tough, but it’s rewarding.”

ShelterBox seemed a natural fit for Winkworth except for one problem: She lacked self-confidence.  

“At every stage (of the vetting process), I thought, ‘I’m not going to make it through.’ And then I’d make it through, and then I’d think, ‘Not this round.’ When I got to the first day of (the four-day assessment) training, I thought: ‘No, I should just pack up and go home. This is stupid. I’m not going to be chosen.’”

Colin Jones understands how the assessment – and the Cornwall session – can be overwhelming. 

“We run exercise after scenario after exercise that really pushes the candidates,” he explains. “After every exercise, we get them to debrief and offer feedback to each other, and that becomes second nature. Those who perform well are the ones who can take that feedback and use it the next time.”

That’s what happened with Winkworth. 

“I’m not somebody who’s usually outspoken or opinionated or takes a lot of leadership,” she explains. “I spent the first day and a half (of the four-day assessment) wanting to contribute more but holding back. And then, on the second night, they gave me a large leadership position. It was actually then that I realized, ‘Oh, people will listen to me.’ Or, ‘I can make good choices that people will back.’ My self-doubt (receded) into the background. If I hadn’t been given that opportunity, I wouldn’t have realized that. I impressed myself. I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this, which is really lovely.’” 

And that’s how she landed an invitation to Cornwall.

Winkworth’s team would often times huddle together to give each other words of encouragement and support. This helped with the team dynamic says Winkworth. 

Midway through the course, Jones designated Winkworth as her team’s leader. “I struggled at first,” she recalls. “There’s fear, excitement, and a lot of anxiety when you’re responsible for a team and the direction it takes and the decisions that are made. We were really tired, and I found it very difficult to communicate clearly and concisely.”

But as the days passed and previously learned lessons kicked in, the team’s ability to collaborate improved. 

“Being able to pull together in a group quickly is something that has to be learned,” Winkworth says. “We got better at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of our group.”

She also found herself emotionally engaged when her team visited a university repurposed as a temporary shelter for 500 people. 

In this scenario, the space was overcrowded, bathroom facilities were inadequate, and there was little food. 

“It really brought home to me what it’s like to be in the field, seeing distraught people who have had everything taken away from them: their families, the people they love, their homes. I got very choked up, even though it was a scenario,” she says.

Her response reveals Winkworth’s prime motivation. 

“The concept that everybody has dignity is important to me, as is helping them retain their dignity on the worst day of their life,” she says. “To be able to take that into a disaster and enable people to take control of their life again – that’s something I admire and want to be involved in.”

After 10 long days, the training concludes. The ShelterBox candidates are exhausted, and, having subsisted over the past few days on meager rations called “rat packs,” they’re hungry. 

The ordeal has taken a toll, and not just on the trainees. As he presents the candidates with their ShelterBox Response Team ID cards – because, yes, all of them have passed the final exam – Colin Jones appears to be holding back tears. His tough-guy veneer has vanished.

A few months later in Australia, Katelyn Winkworth awaits her first assignment.

ShelterBox dispatched Wes Clanton to Madagascar in January after a cyclone killed more than 50 people and displaced 54,000. And in late February, Ned Morris flew to the Dominican Republic and Barbuda to spend three weeks evaluating the response to hurricanes Irma and Maria. 

“I’m nervous and excited,” he said before departure. “More important, I’m ready.”