Local Man Builds Humanitarian Aid Organization From The Ground Up

Eager to help make a difference and seeing what he considers to be systemic flaws in the humanitarian aid sector, Lucas Wilcox set out to create an aid organization, designing, building, funding and testing it himself. That organization is Altruist Relief Kitchen (sARK).

"We are reinventing how the basic necessities of existence are provided for those in need," he shared. "We are doing this by pioneering innovations like radical transparency and radical efficiency, so we can take on projects well beyond disaster relief, from building schools and wells, to permaculture projects and refugee camps."?After Hurricane Harvey, Wilcox and a team of a dozen volunteers traveled to Houston, Texas, where they spent six weeks making and serving 10,000 free hot meals to the lowest income communities. These meals were a combination of donated and purchased food, and were prepared from a field kitchen that was set up in two 2,000 square foot teepees.

The 20,000 pounds of custom gear fits into two school buses when their relief effort is complete, and when they're set up, one is used as a mobile kitchen and the other stores the tools and houses the walk-in fridge?

Most recently, Altruist Relief has been at the Mexican border in Tijuana, feeding refugees. At any one time, there are a dozen people cooking meals in the field kitchen on collapsible stoves capable of cooking 100-gallon meals. Almost everything in the kitchen is custom built from cheap or recycled materials, from the giant folding tables and shelves, bicycle-wheel carts, the dish station, and the walk-in refrigerator built into a school bus, to the modular 2,000 square foot teepees that house the kitchen.

Wilcox invented almost all of the gear that is used?

"I love inventing the gear," he said. "The shelters we use are literally 10 times bigger than the ones built by IKEA that I was repurposing in the Syrian Refugee camps, and are way cheaper to build.?

Nearly everything his organization uses is lightweight, collapsible, strong, functional and recycled. By inventing most everything from scratch, they are able to have their gear perfectly suited to their needs.

"You can see how cooking 100-gallon meals for free on collapsible wood stoves made from recycled materials qualifies as radically efficient," he said.

With ideas like radical transparency and efficiency as their framework, a rotating cast of volunteers has been providing aid around the United States for almost four years. In the fall of 2016, they partnered with Organic Valley and Family of Friends Relief Effort to provide food, water and other emergency services to the community of Baker, Louisiana, after a major flooding event. Immediately afterwards, they transported a group of self-described Marti Gras Indians from New Orleans to Standing Rock, where volunteers set up a large-scale kitchen in one of their massive teepees. A month later, volunteers returned to the area after a fundraiser at KBay Cafe raised funds to provide six giant teepees for the water protectors to live in through the sub zero winters?

He shared that each project is different.

"While Standing Rock and the refugee crisis can be inherently divisive, nobody is against giving food to hungry women and children," he said. "As a representative of a humanitarian aid organization, I'm apolitical. We're just feeding hungry people on the border who are fleeing violence or climate change. It's hard for anyone to be against that simple motivation."

Early in 2017, Wilcox traveled to Lesvos, Greece, to assess the viability of setting up ARK as a Syrian refugee camp in Europe?

"After growing up in the woods in Alaska and then traveling around the country serving free food with very little resources, I was beginning to see how I could create a refugee camp," he said.

Born in Homer and raised in the Chugiak/Eagle River area, Wilcox returned to Homer to attend high school.

"My self-described art form just before I left high school was to understan?the nature of reality clear enough to be able to explain it," he said. "I wanted to figure out how I could help make a difference in the world.?

After high school, he spent eight years traveling to every state, all the national parks and national forests and all the highways west of Kansas, with a goal of seeing the entire country, interacting with a diverse group of people and figuring out how he could be of service.

In 2001, he began working with a group of individuals who referred to themselves as Shining Light Kitchen, traveling continuously around the country serving free food in city parks.

"We were just a bunch of individuals who enjoyed traveling and helping," he said. "We traveled to city after city, serving up food that was outdated or about to be thrown away.?

In 2008, he returned to Homer with his young daughter and began taking classes at Kachemak Bay Campus.

"I took a bunch of different classes, including biology, physics, environmental science and math, and focused on every single class that Mike Hawfield and Kathy Knott provided," he shared?

Moving toward humanitarian aid, he was actively crafting classes in that direction. He was inspired by his anthropology teacher, Kathy Knott, who had done aid work all over the world, spoke eight languages and introduced him to some of the successes and challenges surrounding humanitarian aid.

"My original vision at college was simply that I knew I could make a better refugee camp than currently exists," he shared. "I saw the major problems plaguing humanitarian organizations - a lack of transparency, lack of efficiency, massive bureaucracy and high paid CEO's, and I began to see some simple ways to remedy those issues."

In 2011, while living in Homer, he set out to build a humanitarian aid organization that was free of what he considers to be the systemic problems inherent in the infrastructure of many existing human aid organizations, most specifically, a lack of financial transparency.

"My incredibly ambitious and abstract goal was to try to start an aid organization from scratch, without any resources or money?that would remedy the systemic problems inherent in other organizations," he said.

In 2012, to begin his aid project, he bought a school bus and several teepees. His idea was to use the bus to travel and store supplies and use the teepees as shelters and kitchens. Since then, he has traveled between Alaska and the Lower 48, raising his daughter and saving money for the project, spending his winters in Homer designing the ARK, and his summers in the Lower 48 building the gear and serving food to large groups of people in need.

For the first five years Wilcox designed, built, funded and tested his aid project himself, putting all of his spare time and money into the project.

"Almost every hour not spent with my family has gone into the creation of this project in some way because I'm trying to be as beneficial as I can," he said. "That has been the underlying motivation since I was a kid, trying to figure out how I can contribute as much as I can to creating lasting positive change. The first five years was just pushing the boulder uphill because there isn't a clear-cut path to follow on this kind of thing, but over the past three years, it's really come together, where it has functioned largely on donations and has attracted a solid crew of volunteers."

He has spent the past three-and-a-half years with his team of volunteers actively providing relief after hurricanes, floods, and humanitarian situations, like in Standing Rock?

In 2017, with a goal of assessing the viability of setting up aid in different areas of Europe, he traveled to Sicily, Italy, to see the flow of refugees coming up from Africa and then worked at two refugee camps off the coast of Turkey that were providing aid to people from Syria and the rest of the Middle East?

Wilcox believes that the unique way ARK has approached providing the basic necessities of existence, including its model of radical transparency, is the missing core of humanitarian aid and he is eager to help reinvent the idea of humanitarian aid, rather than being another project in a sea of projects.

"Radical transparency is so simple and straight forward that it's shocking that other organizations don't use it," he shared. "Picture being able to know what happens to all the money that goes to an organization. Anyone can donate $20 and see where it was used. Other organizations don't show where the money's going, except in answering vague questions in yearly tax forms.?

Altruist Relief regularly posts photos of every donation and every receipt that goes through their organization, along with concise videos and spreadsheets describing how the money is used?

"Radical transparency is important both financially and logistically," he said. "Beyond the use of money, radical transparency is about showing exactly what every piece of the organization does and how it does it. That kind of thing doesn't exist anywhere, that's why it's so radical, even though it's just common sense."

Today, he divides his time between Homer and Tijuana, Mexico, where his volunteers are feeding refugees. Now that Altruist Relief is an active, viable organization, Wilcox is eager to market it on a local, national and international level, to attract more volunteers, donations and funding?

"This project provides a stage for all of our respective talents, interests, and abilities in respect to creating positive change in the world," he said. "Welders, web designers, writers, if you're in a wheelchair, if you have only one weekend a month or can't leave your home, you can be a part of this project. It's a way for us to do way more together than what we can do separately."

On March 8 at 6 p.m., Kachemak Bay Campus will host a potluck presentation where Wilcox will discuss the ARK, their past and current projects, the border wall construction and the immigration situation. He will also present on March 9 at 5:30 p.m. at Grace Ridge Brewing.

Visit Altruist Relief at altruistrelief.org.