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Getting Your Hands DIRT-y
BY CAP HAYES · DIRT VOLUNTEER · UNITED STATES
I drove into the office today along a smooth freeway, in pleasant 22-degree Celsius (71-degree Fahrenheit) temperatures. My day included the usual schedule of meetings and Webex calls in air-conditioned comfort. And an enjoyable catch-up with friends over lunch in the cafe.
I hear you asking,
“So what? Sounds like a pretty standard day at Cisco.” And it was.
It was a world away from a standard day on my last assignment with the Cisco Disaster Incident Response Team (DIRT) in Colombia.
Just a month ago, I volunteered on a team working to provide Wi-Fi to support humanitarian programs for migrants from Venezuela. Working alongside TacOps and our NGO partner NetHope, we all were there to connect shelters, clinics, and other facilities along the increasingly busy migration route from Cúcuta (near the Colombia/Venezuela border) and Bucaramanga.
It was hot, humid, dusty, and often uncomfortable. We scrambled across roofs, up trees, and through ditches to rig up Meraki access points and get them working. The project began in December, and we managed to install 12 working Wi-Fi hotspots while I was there, bringing the total to more than 75 across the migration route.
Why is this work so important? It’s hard to describe the sheer number of people who are on the move right now.
Men, women, and children, carrying what they can manage from their old lives in their hands and on their backs. Exhausted from the long journey and worried about what the future holds, their only means of communication with family back home — or where they’re headed — is a smartphone. And it often doesn’t include a data plan.
You should see the utter joy on their faces when they connect to Wi-Fi and can WhatsApp or Facebook with loved ones. This was especially clear at the border, where 300 to 400 people are milling around at all times and 130 connections in constant use.
That joy and relief from getting connected is something I will always remember. It’s what made me want to carry on, to try a different solution, to improvise each time we hit a hurdle.
It really is an incomparable feeling, knowing you’ve helped to make a difference to people who face such hardship.
As a DIRT volunteer, you leave your ego at the door. Whether you’re on assignment overseas with an NGO partner or called in to help with a local or national incident, it’s about getting the job done. And if you know our technology or know how to manage projects and logistics, you can put those skills to incredible use.
People sometimes ask what motivated me to volunteer with DIRT. I was out for dinner one evening when another patron began to choke on a piece of steak. Like almost everyone in the restaurant, I was in shock and had no idea what to do. Luckily, someone at my table did. He jumped up and performed the Heimlich maneuver. He saved the person’s life. I didn’t know where to begin to save him.
Fast forward to 2010 when I started with Cisco. One of the first things I needed to do was to ask my new boss for time off to complete a CPR course.
He was supportive but encouraged me to do first-aid training with Cisco instead and join the local Emergency Response Team. Some of them also worked in TacOps, so I heard their stories about how they help in disaster zones and realized I could get involved as a volunteer.
The rest is history!
About Cap’s Recent Project
People continue to leave Venezuela due to violence and threats, as well as lack of security, food, medicine, and essential services.
More than 3 million Venezuelans are now living abroad, the vast majority in countries within South America. This is the largest exodus in the recent history of Latin America.
Learn more from UNHCR.
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