Roku Channel to Launch ‘Team Rubicon’ Series Spotlighting Volunteer Disaster Response Organization
The Roku Channel will shine a spotlight on the work of the veteran-led disaster response organization Team Rubicon through an unscripted series set to premiere May 25 from the production team behind PBS’ “This Old House.”
“Team Rubicon” follows the organization’s volunteers as they are sent off in deployments across the country and overseas to help the neediest victims of natural and man-made disasters, from the recent storms in Selma, Ala., to the recent record snowfalls in mountain communities north of San Bernardino, Calif.
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The half-hour series, hosted by “This Old House’s” Kevin O’Connor, documents the real-world impact of extreme weather events and how the heaviest burdens fall hardest on the poorest communities and most vulnerable residents. The 13 self-contained episodes also emphasize the importance that volunteering plays for servicemembers in their transition to civilian life.
The individual stories of “Greyshirts,” as Team Rubicon volunteers are known, are the heart of the series, says Michael Burton, who oversees the “This Old House” unit for Roku.
Roku bought the long-running public television series as well as the “Ask This Old House” spinoff and production studio in 2021. The “Team Rubicon” series is part of a push for the “This Old House” crew to diversify behind their stronghold in the home-improvement genre.
For Burton, “Team Rubicon” was a natural place to start given the storytelling potential from the high emotion and impressive achievements of the nonprofit organization founded in 2010 to provide assistance in Haiti after the devastating earthquake. Today, Team Rubicon has more than 150,000 registered volunteers. It’s conducted more than 1,100 service operations in the U.S. and abroad, including in the Ukraine.
“It’s amazing to hear in each episode the personal stories of the volunteers and the stories of the folks that they help,” Burton says. “There’s real power when people come together and they’re not looking at politics or race or any agenda but they’re focused on helping people in need. We’re hopeful this show is showing the best of who we are – our better angels.”
The “This Old House” team first became interested in the Team Rubicon story when they encountered the organization in Houston during the response after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. In 2018, “Ask This Old House” featured footage of a Team Rubicon team helping to demolish a Harvey-damaged home. The partnership for the 13-episode series blossomed after Burton, O’Connor and others sat down with Team Rubicon CEO Art delaCruz in Los Angeles last June when the “This Old House” team was in town to accept a lifetime achievement honor from the Daytime Emmy Awards.
Team Rubicon had been approached in the past for unscripted and documentary projects, but the timing never seemed quite right. For delaCruz, it was crucial that the production partners understand the nuances of what Team Rubicon does for the people it serves, and what it does for the people who serve the organization.
“As I met with Michael and Kevin and (producer) John Tomlin, it became readily apparent that they were committed to telling our story,” delaCruz says. “They’ve proven to be incredible partners. They understand that we need to get the narrative right.”
David Eilenberg, head of content for Roku Media, said the personal narratives are profound. The widely diverse backgrounds of the volunteers sends an important message in such a politically polarized time.
“In this show we’re meeting people from all walks of life and seeing how people from different parts of the country can work together on something bigger,” Eilenberg says. “People can get so trapped inside their bubbles. Here were seeing the camaraderie and the uplifting experiences of Greyshirts interacting with victims that they’ve never met before.”
Footage for the episodes was shot during Team Rubicon operations conducted from November 2022 through early April. At first, delaCruz was concerned there might not be enough activity during the period, but weather events have kept Team Rubicon units very busy.
The production team joined in the spirit of the organization, with O’Connor embedded in full Greyshirt mode. Members of the small crew lived with the volunteers in spartan conditions.
“We embedded with them. We slept on cots,” Burton says. “We were worried that they would see us as interlopers. I like to think we became part of their family.”
Roku was quick to snag the show for its originals channel, which will make “Team Rubicon” available to stream for free with commercials. All episodes will drop May 25 leading into Memorial Day weekend. Financial services firm USAA, which serves military families and veterans, signed on as a key sponsor while the series was in production.
“Everybody got behind it and USAA became the final element in that relationship,” Burton says. “It was all done with the very best sense of shared values around service, helping people and illuminating the best of who we are.”
The TV exposure will surely raise the profile of Team Rubicon, which has steadily grown in stature within the nonprofit NGO, humanitarian and disaster aid community. The organization was co-founded by in 2010 by Marine Corp veteran Jake Wood and others. DelaCruz, a 22-year Navy veteran, joined as chief operating officer in 2016; he took the CEO reins from Wood in July 2021.
Participation in Team Rubicon is open to veterans and non-veterans alike. In delaCruz’s view, the series does a good job of capturing the many crosscurrents that inspire volunteers from all backgrounds to give deeply of themselves.
“The volunteers are our secret sauce,” delaCruz says. “It’s all about the experiences that we give to them and their selflessness to serve.”
As an organization, Team Rubicon is reaching an inflection point as it looks to build on the scale it has achieved in recent years. The org’s highly skilled and motivated workforce has made it in-demand with local, state and federal emergency management agencies, not only for disaster response but also mitigation operations to prevent future devastation.
“The drivers of our mission are climate change and the hazards associated with extreme weather events,” delaCruz says. “And conflict is continually a driver of humanitarian need. The thing that this show helps illuminate is the idea that inequality is a big player in disasters. The poor bear the brunt and they don’t have the resources to rebuild.”
DelaCruz hopes the TV series will inspire people to learn more about the organization, which in turn should boost fundraising and volunteer recruitment. The organization is well-positioned for a growth spurt, he says.
“We need to be bigger. We need to do more,” delaCruz says. “We know there’s going to be more need and more communities that need our help. More volunteers and more donors can fuel that mission.”
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