Lucky for me, I was given an assignment to tell his story. And it is one amazing story. So, in honor of Joel's departure, here it is. He's Living the Dream....read about it!!!
The sun dips below the horizon and darkness covers the narrow dirt road deep in rural Mali. Gladys, an ’86 Volkswagen Caravelle, is almost out of gas and she has been acting up the last leg of the drive. There is no village in sight. Looks like Joel will be sleeping in the van tonight. Such is life when you’re driving “cross-continent” from Ireland to Togo.
When Joel Somerville won the “Live your Dreams” Scholarship from Glasgow Caledonian University he knew he wanted to do optometry work in third world countries. He heard about Mercy Ships from a friend and applied for an open position. He was accepted and given a start date in mid-March.
“I already told my job that I was leaving in January. I was sitting at work one day, a little bored, and the idea popped into my head to take the weeks before to drive down to Togo. I texted my friend Matthew, ‘Want to drive to Africa?’ and he immediately responded, ‘Yes.’”
Next item of business: a vehicle. There was an additional member of Joel’s family known as Gladys: a rustic blue, 1986 Volkswagon Caravelle. “Her official documents call her grey, but I think she is more a midnight blue,” Joel muses. “My parents got her when I was 3. I have so many wonderful memories in that car.”
Joel asked his parents if he could drive Gladys to Togo. Nonchalantly, his dad said, “Sure.” His mom was a little more concerned. After running a Google search and reading a blog of an elderly couple who successfully made the drive from Ireland to West Africa, Joel’s mom came around. “If this old couple can make it, you can too.”
Preparations were made for the journey: insurance, packing, tools for if Gladys broke down. Then, departure day was upon him. Joel’s entire family was there to say goodbye to Gladys. She had been a part of their family for so long; it was extremely hard to see her go. The plan was that when Joel returned to Ireland in June he would sell Gladys and leave her in Togo.
On the 9th of February Joel and Matthew launched their cross-continent journey. As you would imagine, there was quite a bit of adventure along the way. Joel and Matthew slept inside Gladys in cool countries, and slept outside in warm countries. Dealing with police and driving across borders was always a challenge.
“Policeman seemed to make up reasons to pull us over and ask questions. We had all the paperwork we needed, but it was still a bit scary. One time this policeman wouldn’t give up: asking tons of questions, so I asked him if he liked music. He said yes, so I handed him a CD. He said ‘Thanks!’ and we were on our way!”
Every time they approached a border crossing, Joel and Matthew would stop and say a prayer before driving through. When they reached the border between Burkina Faso and Togo they sailed through just fine. A few seconds later, however, they heard a whistle and commotion behind them. Joel nervously pulled Gladys to the side of the road. A patrolman walked up and knocked on the window.
“Hey!” he said, “Remember me? You gave me a CD a few days back. It’s actually really good. Thanks!!”
It was the policeman from a few days earlier. Joel and Matthew looked at each other, shook their heads and laughed. Thank goodness bartering still works in Africa. They made it through the LAST border!
Five weeks and 11 countries later, Joel drove onto the dock of the Africa Mercy, reporting for duty. He has now served for 4 months as an Eye Specialist, performing the first phase of screening for all Mercy Ships Eye patients.
He has built strong bonds with his field eye team. Four days a week they operated the screening site, seeing hundreds of patients a day. The need in Togo was so immense and sorting through the masses of patients each day was taxing on his emotions. But Joel knew that Mercy Ships could help many of them with a simple, 5 minute surgery. He knew he was making a difference.
Joel’s time with Mercy Ships, and the journey here, are experiences he will never forget. When asked how he will say goodbye to Gladys, Joel transformed into a somber mood. “I can’t. I’ve really struggled to come to terms with it. It’s hard to part with something that carries so many memories. We might have a time where everyone could just come and tell stories and sit in her. Just to remember the good times.”
After a brief trip home to Ireland, Joel will continue “Living his Dreams” in South America in the fall.