From the Road: Tsunami Volunteering in Thailand

From the Road: Tsunami Volunteering in Thailand

Jeff Johns Volunteering after Tsunami in Thailand
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From the Road: Tsunami Volunteering in Thailand

I honked the horn a couple times letting him know I was there, it was far too cold to drop inside for a chat.  In the five seconds it took him to run to the passenger side, I  remember hearing “the death toll has risen to 500” coming from the radio speakers in my Mom’s van.  I listened intently for a couple more seconds, something about a Tsunami in Asia somewhere. It all faded away under the sound of Matt slamming the door shut as I felt a blast of cold air on my cheek.  Down the dark street – I’m sure we were off to a party, a get together, a forgotten hangout – the only thing that mattered to a kid who just returned for the holidays from college in California. The one memory I hold from that night was the voice of the woman on NPR as I sat in the car, waiting for Matt, on a cold December evening in Washington, D.C.

Two weeks later I was sitting in the transit lounge at Chicago O’Hare Airport and was glued to the television. CNN had been playing a 90 second loop of the footage for hours, but I couldn’t look away. The death toll, now over 100,000,  hadn’t stopped rising since that night I heard about it on the radio. An underwater earthquake had cause a Tsunami to rip through multiple countries in Southeast Asia, killing scores and wiping out entire village, cities, nearly countries.

I wasn’t sure where Thailand was, but the particular news clip that struck me the most was of a woman weeping as she desperately clung to a piece of floating debris in a literal sea of destruction.  I couldn’t look away, and for the entire flight to Dublin, I could not get the woman’s face out of my mind.

Sitting in a dimly lit cyber café off a busy street in the city center, I found myself trying to find information on Thailand, a country, a people, a culture I knew nothing about. Nothing except that there was a woman, a family, a people that could use my help, and at that particular moment in my life that was enough for me.

It took me a couple attempts to get the message worded right to my college professor. “Fred, I am taking the spring semester off and will return in the fall. I am in the process of buying a ticket to Thailand to volunteer after the tsunami”.  I anxiously stared at my Hotmail inbox for a few minutes trying to summon an immediate response, which I knew I’d have to wait for.

I found the official website for the Red Cross, but they only wanted money. I thought I was getting closer when I found an organization in India accepting volunteers, but closed the tab when I saw they charged nearly $700US to house and care for a volunteer for a single week. Just as I was about to give up I scrolled way down the page and saw a sentence that would change my life. “If you feel like donating $20 doesn’t make you a humanitarian, I have an extra shovel.” I kept reading, on the edge of my seat, surrounded by the dull and dreary Monday evening conversation in an internet café in Dublin, but filled with an excitement I had never known. Someone, somewhere, had felt the urge, the calling that I had, to drop everything in that moment, travel to the other side of the world and help someone who needed it.

After a couple exchanged emails I had learned that Tim was in a small seaside town named Bangtao on the southern Thai island of Phuket, I had never heard of it before. I quickly learned Phuket was a gorgeous exotic island full of crystal clear waters, palm trees, elephants and locals with smiles from ear to ear. Tim had been living in Phuket with his family when, on December 26th, 2004, the morning after Christmas, the huge wave had come and destroyed much of the west coast of the island. Quick to get to work, Tim grabbed the few shovels he had and posted a plea for help on the internet.

After two days I got an email response from Fred, it only contained four words. “Freaking go for it!”, it read.

Walking off the plane in Phuket, a heat hit me I had never known before, and I grew up with humid summers in Washington, DC. The heat was disorienting, and to a 19 year old kid who didn’t know where on a map he was, it didn’t take much for me to be overwhelmed. I smiled at the beautiful Thai woman greeting our plane, laughed when I went to the ATM and realized I had no idea what the currency or exchanged rate was, and held my breath as I jumped into the first cab I saw and handed him a crumpled up piece of paper with the word “Bangtao” written on it.

Jeff Johns Volunteering after Tsunami in Thailand

I had only planned to stay 3 weeks but ended up living in the small seaside village for over 3 months. During my time in Thailand I met some of the most interesting people had ever known and was introduced to the kindness, warmth and culture that is Thailand. Here, my eyes were opened. I took in every experience that was placed before me. I ate foods I had never heard of, learned words I had never heard and listened to stories that would change my life. For the first time in my life I realized the true impact that visual storytelling could have, and with my trusty point and shoot, starting taking the first pictures that would wind up pushing me to pursue a degree in photojournalism.

Now, 10 years later, I am writing this from my home in Phuket where I live with my girlfriend, another photojournalist and fellow world traveler. I could never have imagined the impact the experiences I had on this small island would have affected the trajectory of my life, or the effect that news clip in the Chicago airport would have on me. Who knows where I would have ended up or what I would have been doing if I had never come to Phuket, but for now I am only looking forward to the future and trying to guess where I will end up next. It’s still too early in my life to try and make sense of the past.

The Southeast Asian tsunami of 2004 wound up leaving over 230,000 dead in 14 countries, started by the third largest recorded earthquake in history.

The small gathering of international volunteers in Phuket, Thailand after the tsunami has grown over the years since, and developed into a disaster response organization named All Hands. Since its conception in Thailand, All Hands has empowered over 11,000 volunteers on 33 projects worldwide.


  1. […] After my Christmas in April day of service, I didn’t feel any different about volunteering. I spent the whole day thinking about myself and the cute senior, flirting with the girls and horsing around with the other guys. I didn’t give volunteering much thought after that – until 4 years later when I was sitting in the Dublin airport watching tsunami coverage on TV and knowing I had to help. […]

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