Have you ever met someone who seems to have lived several lives in just a matter of decades? Well, Dr. Alison Thompson is one such human.
The word ‘extraordinary’ may be thrown around far too freely these days but she fully earns the acclaim. Alison began her career as a maths theorist and teacher in Australia, moved to New York to work as an investment banker, enrolled into NYU to become a filmmaker and then her world came crashing down. Quite literally.
On September 11th 2001, Alison lost her colleagues, dearest friends and the whole life trajectory she had planned in the Twin Towers. She rollerbladed downtown to be a first responder and continued to live on the streets at Ground Zero for nine months.
“When [9/11] happened nothing made sense anymore.” Alison tells Collective Hub.
The only thing that did make sense to Alison was being of service. And this lay the foundations for her wide-spread humanitarian work around the work ever since.
Her organisation, Third Wave Volunteers, was born directly out of this very global yet very personal tragedy. And its’ motto, ‘everyone’s needed’ stems from her experience at Ground Zero too. Ever since, Alison’s life mission has been to demonstrate how a collective of individuals, each playing their small role can make the biggest impact in times of disaster.
“These issues are too big for governments and NGOs to run. They need everybody to step up,” she asserts.
Reflecting back on the chapters that preceded this world-altering day, Alison realises her very different careers that paved her past all played a vital part in training her for what was to come. “All those jobs led me to being a humanitarian. It means I can teach kids, I can use my film skills to shoot and send the footage back to my investment banker friends to raise money. It all links together. I draw on all those bits and pieces.”
But for Alison, the last fifteen plus years of full-time volunteering has not just been about giving. She is the first to admit: “It gives back tenfold.”
“Volunteering is such a gift from the heart. It’s something we don’t have to do but we willingly give ourselves to do.”
There’s little wonder why she has been dubbed ‘The Angel of Light’ and has received high praise from Bono, Sean Penn and Donna Karen, let alone been awarded an Order of Australia.
Here’s just a small snippet of Alison’s wisdom and compassion.
Alison on the modern volunteer movement:
“What is happening is a big swing. All the old disaster and aid models don’t work anymore – the big organisations are too stuck in bureaucracy. All the Syrian refugee camps in Greece are run by volunteers. They’ve stepped in on the rescues. And the same in Haiti. There’s this whole new revolution of volunteers that are no red tape, no bullshit, just get in there, working their butts off. They’re not NGOs getting paid 9-5: they work from the moment they wake up to the moment they drop and a lot of the time [they’re] 20 hour days but they keep going because they have it in their hearts. They just really want to help.”
On the practicalities of crises:
“I think [the ability to stay calm and collected in a crisis] has been honed along the way. People say to me, ‘how can you collect dead bodies? I can never do that. And I tell them, ‘I couldn’t too if I was sitting on the other side of the world having drinks, but when you’re there and you have the gloves on you just count ‘1, 2, 3’, and you put the body in the bag and zip it up and go… ‘it’s done.’ You’re right there in front of someone, you just do it.”
On the ‘Age of Overwhelm’:
“The main thing I have come across is that fear of taking the first step in going [to help on the ground]. I just say, ‘Get your plane ticket and get your return ticket back. Just go and if you don’t like it, get on a plane a few days later, come home and go play your video games or whatever you do.’ But no-one ever does it. Once they get there they are wow-ed and realise everyone else’s problems are so much bigger than theirs and just get stuck in to helping no matter what it is – peeling carrots or carrying boxes or medical [work], whatever it is.”
On where to start in making a difference:
“I tell people to back up [and ask themselves]: ‘What do you really love?’ Do you love kids? Do you love the environment? Do you like old people? Do you like sports? Then you narrow that down. Then get a couple of friends around you and start with something small. There’s so much in the world going wrong but you’re not superman or superwoman, you can’t fix it all. But you can do this little thing over here… It really does work but you’ve got to get over yourself and get over your ego. You can’t save the whole world but you can help a group. If everyone in the world did that, everything in the world would be pretty good.”
On technology’s role in affecting change:
In Haiti [social media] was like a magic genie. When I was in the hospital asking for something like a shot I’d get it straight away as people respond and send it out [to their networks]. Once we were all dehydrated and I was very sick, calling out ‘Help, help, can someone come?’ but no-one could hear me because the generator was on. So I tweeted out to New York and a friend there Tweets it back to a girl in the tent next to me, then she rushes in. That’s when I was sold that this is such a strong medium. We’re running the whole operation on Whatsapps, Twitter and Facebook.
[One other thing] I’ve learnt over the years: when disaster strikes and you’re on the first mission, take an IT team because you get there and there’s 300,000 people dead and we need to get the message out to the world to get help.
On the current refugee migration:
On how she sustains hope:
“I see the very very best of mankind but I also see the very very worst. But the way humanity pulls together and pulls each other up (not everyone and not everywhere) always gives me hope. I’m an optimist. I always do find hope in something.
It’s like a battle between love and hatred. Love wins in the end.”
On ‘refilling’ at home:
“My friends are always like ‘Can we have dinner with you in two weeks?’ but I don’t know where I am tomorrow. In between [commitments] anything can happen. The world is my base I guess.
I got married two years ago so I do have to see my husband, who is very supportive. He’s amazing. I go out in the field and I get so squeezed out of love because everyone is sucking the love out of me and I want to give it all. Then I get home and need re-filling. He fills me up and then I’m ready to go again.”
Alison is coming back to her first home, Australia, on 21st October for the 2016 Advance Global Australian Awards and Summit where she is an industry category winner and speaker.
Find tickets and more information here.