New Zealander of the Year 2011 Finalist: Sam Johnson

By Jarrod Booker

Sam Johnson is proud of turning around the perception of students as lazing and self-indulgent. Photo / Simon Baker
Sam Johnson is proud of turning around the perception of students as lazing and self-indulgent. Photo / Simon Baker

He led an army in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes, and Sam Johnson admits there were times he felt like he was at war with the authorities.

The 22-year-old Canterbury University student mobilised thousands into a Student Volunteer Army to clean up tonnes of liquefaction - the silt and sludge produced when an earthquake hits loosely packed, water-logged soil - swamping neighbourhoods after the disastrous jolts.

His leadership has made him one of the finalists for the Herald's New Zealander of the Year award.

But he says there were times along the way when he was tempted to throw in the towel.

In the early stages, Mr Johnson says, Civil Defence tried to either shut down or take over the operation because of the risks of students going into a disaster zone.

Some senior city council staff and Army personnel were also "particularly 'anti' it". Mr Johnson was told he could be held personally liable if something bad happened to any of the volunteers.

"Certainly there were times when I thought, 'Why are we bothering to do this, if we just hit roadblocks the whole way through?"'

In spite of the difficulties, Mr Johnson used Facebook to rally 2500 volunteers to clear about 60,000 tonnes of silt and sludge after the first big quake in September last year.

After the February quake killed 182 people, the Student Volunteer Army grew to 9000 and helped clear about 400,000 tonnes of silt and sludge over 75,000 hours of volunteering.

"Nothing was a problem," Mr Johnson says. "It was always holding the tail of the tiger, really, trying to keep it in the right direction."

Mr Johnson was born and raised in the small Canterbury farming community of Mayfield. Doing something for nothing was second nature to him.

"My family were always involved in the Lions and the A&P committee and the school board of trustees, and there was always those community days that we did. We would go home for holidays and work on the farm."

Mr Johnson is perhaps most proud of turning around the perception of students as lazy, self-indulgent and "good for nothing".

"When push comes to shove, the student population are more than willing to get out there and do it. It just takes a bit of encouragement."

Christchurch mayor Bob Parker says he could not think of anyone more deserving of recognition. Mr Johnson's rallying of students to support quake victims was a "genius stroke".

"He inspired a whole city, and actually a whole nation. He delivered to those most in need in our city. He was one of the great heroes of the Christchurch earthquakes."

- NZ Herald

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