When Steven Tonkinson goes out on a training run with a large green box strapped to his back, he attracts attention.
“I’ve been asked if it’s a recycling bin,” he said. “Other people just stare and stop me to figure out what I’m doing.”
Those double-takes and questions are exactly what Tonkinson wants because it gives him a chance to explain the purpose of ShelterBox, an international charity that provides disaster relief supplies inside 3-by-2-by-2-foot containers.
When Tonkinson runs the Miami Marathon on Sunday, his goal is twofold: To finish the event he has completed every year since it started in 2003 and to run all 26.2 miles with the 25-pound ShelterBox.
“It will be a great challenge and a great way to raise awareness of an incredible organization,” he said.
No doubt he will be the subject of more queries from fellow runners as he travels the course from downtown to Miami Beach to Coconut Grove and back to Bayfront Park. For several hours, he will hold a running forum on what ShelterBox is and does.
Tonkinson, 36, of Coconut Grove, has been a ShelterBox volunteer for seven years and has been deployed seven times to five countries to help distribute the boxes — which weigh 120 pounds when full. Inside, there are such life-saving essentials as a tent, ground sheets, thermal blankets, solar lamps, water storage and purification equipment, cooking utensils, mosquito nets and a tool kit.
ShelterBox has responded to some 240 disasters or crises in 90 countries and provided aid to more than 1 million people — from refugees in Lebanon and Africa to typhoon victims in the Philippines to earthquake survivors in Haiti to those left homeless by tornados in Oklahoma. ShelterBox is currently responding to flooding in Paraguay and a wave of refugees in Tanzania who have fled neighboring Burundi.
Tonkinson was a multi-sport athlete at Coral Gables High and has completed marathons, half marathons, one Ironman Triathlon and several half Ironmans. He works with his father, Rick, at Tonkinson Financial, specializing in retirement planning for middle-class clients. He learned about ShelterBox through a Rotary Club friend of his father’s.
“Growing up in Miami and experiencing Hurricane Andrew and other storms, I know what it’s like for people to lose their homes,” he said. “As a ShelterBox volunteer I realized I could actually make a difference, not just with my checkbook but with my hands.”
He’s been deployed to Mexico in the wake of a hurricane, to Peru to respond to landslides, to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, to Malawi amid flooding and to Haiti multiple times after the 2010 earthquake.
In Malawi he befriended a blind woman while rebuilding her mud hut. In Haiti and Peru, he marveled at the resilience of people who had lost everything.
“In Haiti, in the middle of such devastation, it was remarkable to see people still laughing and singing,” he said. “In Peru, we were in a very remote, poor area, but rich with love and life. You get a sense of what’s truly important. Material possessions are nothing compared to your friends, family and community.”
To prepare for Sunday’s marathon, Tonkinson did a number of long runs with the box plus stair workouts at a friend’s building on Brickell Avenue. While his personal record is 3:35, he’s projecting five hours for this one. He bolted the ShelterBox onto the frame of an old backpack.
“I have to wear it tight but it still impedes my arm movement,” he said. “That kind of load affects your stride, which is reduced to a quick shuffle. It puts a lot of stress on the top of your quads and your hips.”
The marathon will certainly have him ready for his next ShelterBox mission.
“Fitness plays a huge role when you’re working 18-hour days,” he said. “Or you have to hike 10 miles carrying a heavy pack because the roads are washed out.”
Tonkinson hopes to raise $26,200 for ShelterBox. Donations can be made through his web page: http://shelterbox. kintera.org/steven tonkinson.