The most inspiring people are not the ones that are out the front, but they are the ones who lead naturally from behind, with the group. These are the leaders that live humbly for a cause and don’t feel the need to martyr themselves for a cause. I once was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend an inspiring time with one such person Norvan Vogt, called Olie by his friends. He was an Australian group leader from Canberra with the Youth Challenge International program in Costa Rica in 2003. He is the most inspiring individual I have ever met.
It was the first week into a 13 week long community development project to build a school in the remote Chiripo Mountains. There had been torrential downpour for two days. At about seven o’clock in the evening after everyone had finished their dinner; most of the team was going about their nightly tasks, when there came a knock at the door. The local doctor was standing there with a rain poncho on, soaking wet. He was quite anxious and explained to Norvan that we, the team of 15 volunteers, had to get evacuated because the town was soon to be inundated by a flash flood. The doctor explained that he would be back in the next five minutes with a truck and we were to be evacuated.
I don’t know if it was Norvan’s military training or scouting background but he swung into action immediately and told you exactly what to do. Gathering the team in the kitchen he explained exactly what was going to happen, he tasked everybody with a particular role, even though we had little time this really took the panic out of the group. Sending the female volunteers, the majority of the group, to go get their equipment first, he then divided up the other group tasks amongst the male volunteers. One of them was sent to the boy’s room to get all of the boys equipment packed. The other males were tasked with getting shelter and food and other equipment. Once the truck turned up he sent the other group leader Laura, onto the truck first so that she could coordinate things at the truck.
The girls were sent off to get onto the truck first followed by the boys. It was pitch black and water was rising fast but there was no sense of panic only a sense of urgency, this was because there was nobody yelling, and Norvan was telling people exactly what to do. Once the entire team was on the truck Norvan did a quick sweep of the building making sure nobody was left behind, he picked up the medical kit launched himself into the waist deep water had struggled his way out to the truck. As he got one hand onto the back tailgate of the truck, the truck sped off as the wheel arches were already under water. This caused Norvan to fall from the back of the truck, Eric, one of the volunteers, grabbed Norvan by his backpack strap and pulled Norvan onto the back of the truck.
The truck sped off at a great speed, when it came to crossing the bridge in the middle of town, the water was so high that you could barely make out where the edge of the bridge was. Once we had got through the middle of town we sped up the other side of town up a hill to safety. That was where we disembarked, getting out the shelter we stood around in the rain under plastic sheets. Just take the edge off the situation, Norvan began the lead us all in song, I guess that is where the Boy Scout training came in handy. It seems to be a little bit silly now but it was quite reassuring at the time. Eventually we found shelter in a chicken coop and that’s where we spent the rest of the night.
Unfortunately two nights later after we had been evacuated to another location we went through a second dramatic incident of the project. After we had spent the day helping out with an indigenous Christmas party for the children of the local indigenous reserve, we came home to find we have been robbed. Norvan, Laura and the boys went the missionary, whose house we were evacuated too, to go see if they could find who did it and get our stuff back. Norvan didn’t return until the next morning, he had taken watch by himself for the whole night until he was relieved by police from the neighboring city. Even though he looked incredibly tired, he also seemed to be something deeper that was wrong. That morning an investigation team showed up and took fingerprints in an effort to track down who it was. They never did catch the person or get any of our stuff back.
The situation further deteriorated as the following day Laura, Norvan’s only support, left the project, close to a nervous breakdown, under a lot of stress and fatigue she had decided to go home and rest. At the time we did know if she would be back on project. to make matters worse, later that night one of the other volunteers got really sick and after caring for her all night, in the morning Norvan had her evacuated by ambulance. He sent her sister and the only Costa Rican participant with her, just to make sure that they would be okay.
I can’t imagine how Norvan felt at the time, I know I would have been in pieces. There he was in a foreign country, where it only just begun to speak the language, with a project that had run off the rails due to there being no materials, all alone with his partner gone and his team split between two geographic locations, not knowing what would happen next. It must have been heartbreaking! Fortunately for our team, Norvan was not like many other people, he has a strong inner strength and strong character.
This is where the true inspiration comes from, Norvan just got on with the job. He got another group leader to come up from head office. He held a meeting with the entire team to see what we wanted to do, if we wanted to stay or go. When we unanimously decided to stay he went about organizing other activities, such as accompanying the local priest on an expedition into the jungle. We organized Christmas with the whole team. And when Laura came back, they organized with the community to build two extra classrooms for the local high school. This would allow the children of the town to finish high school and increase their chances of being able to go on to university.
You would expect someone who shows such strong personality and direct leadership to then dominate the team by being the central person steering the group. This is where Norvan is different. He slowly pulled himself back, while he supported Laura in becoming more of a leader. It was beautiful thing to see because in Latin America it is rare that women get the opportunity to be so supported and encouraged by their male colleagues. The relationship that developed between Norvan and Laura was unique, it was like they where brother and sister while on project.
Norvan helped the group make decisions for ourselves by being inclusive not exclusive. We organized a local market for the indigenous people of the reserve to trade their wares. The really inspiring stuff is the Norvan made us feel that we owned the project, I never really seen someone do it like he did, to create something from nothing.
Towards the end of the project Norvan became incredibly ill. The severity of how sick he was is something that we did not find out until after the project. In a conversation I had with him after project I asked him why he stayed on project, he simply said that even though he was sick he wanted to finish what he started and he had nowhere else to go, and he would rather be with family, the team.