For Green Bay, Wis.-based event tent manufacturer American Tent, what began as a website chat ended as a disaster relief effort.
Two representatives from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) reached out to American Tent through the company’s chat feature in February, explaining that the organization needed tents because they were sending a delegation to Puerto Rico to set up temporary school rooms to replace schools that were destroyed in a 6.4-magnitude earthquake in early January.
The company responded quickly with quotes and shipping estimates. But American Tent wasn’t satisfied with just selling tents to the organization.
“We realized that this was a huge disaster for our fellow American citizens—but at least here in Wisconsin, we hadn’t heard much about the earthquakes and the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico,” says American Tent CEO Tony Ehrbar. “We figured since we didn’t know much about it, our social and business circles may not know much either. We started a GoFundMe to raise more money so that we could send team members there to help with set up and train volunteers. We also collected enough money to bring soccer balls, insect repellant, school supplies and other supplies the AFT identified as needed.”
As of mid-March, the company had manufactured 100 tents for the efforts in Puerto Rico, including a large order of tents donated by the AFL-CIO. Ehrbar delivered the first 20 to the Seafarers’ Union in Philadelphia, Pa., himself because they had to be on a ship the following day.
Ehrbar, American Tent sales manager Jake Legois and COO Bill Story flew to Puerto Rico in early March. In Puerto Rico, the volunteers and staff were patient and hardworking, Ehrbar says, and while there was a language barrier, they were able to piece together each other’s broken Spanish and English.
“We told them we needed sledgehammers for pounding stakes into the ground. Well, they showed up with hammers, but they were for pounding nails, not 42-inch stakes, so they had to track down some additional hammers,”
Ehrbar says. “Additionally, the first tent went onto asphalt, which is always a challenge when you only have sledgehammers. All of a sudden, one of the workers had refashioned his hammer drill and within five minutes had started pilot holes for us. That was a huge relief and showed some ingenuity on their part. We weren’t sure how quickly they would pick up on setting up the tents, but by the time we finished the first tent they were already on their way to install the second one, which looked beautiful!”
Ehrbar says that it’s human instinct to help in a crisis, but people don’t always know how. The lesson here is simple: Just ask.
“Reaching out to people to help is a win-win,” he says. “People get what they need, and helpers are able to use their resources for good. Also, don’t be afraid to do something a little outside your comfort zone. We flew down to Puerto Rico on three days’ notice to assist with the setup, and it was one of the most rewarding things any of us has ever done.”