Friday, August 6, 2010

Junior's Genius Foresight

Junior is one of those one-in-a-million kids. He’s an anomaly. After just six years on this earth he has displayed a remarkable amount of grace, resilience and faith. An unwavering faith that one day, when the time was right, God would send someone to correct his crooked legs.

Around the time Junior learned to walk is when his mother realized he was not like the other children. His legs were not straight—they bowed out at his knees. His two legs were shaped like parentheses, as if they were holding in a secret, or a deep disguised reason why he was made this way.

At the ripe-old-age of three, his condition caused him to struggle while walking. His mother, Akpene, was discouraged at first but tried to be optimistic that this was just a phase. Surely, she thought, he would grow out of this deformity.

Three-year-olds do not have insight into their future. At that young age, all they know is their parents give them love and ensure their survival. They are not wise enough to know any different. They have no control over their health, nor do they have foresight to predict the future.

Junior, however, held all of these gifts. He did not accept his crooked legs as simply the hand he was dealt. He knew he would not be this way forever. At the distinguished age of three, he intelligently and confidently looked at his mother and told her, “I know these legs that you are seeing today will not be like this forever.”

She patted him on his head, acknowledging his insight, but was curious as to how he came up with such an unattainable dream. For she knew that the only way to straighten his bow-legs was to have a medical procedure. A procedure that required money. Money she did not have.

The neighboring kids around Junior’s home would laugh at him. They would chase, tease and ridicule him. Harsh words create scars on young children that effect them years down the road. Not for Junior. He was head-strong and determined not to let mean words alter his faith. With the resolve of a mature adult, he would look at them with peaceful eyes and say, “I know you are laughing at me now, But one day I’ll be healed from this disease. One day.”

About a year down the road, an organization arrived that seemed to be the answer to his prayers. Junior and Akpene visited this international healthcare NGO. The doctors there examined his legs. Unfortunately, Junior and Akpene were turned away after being told that there was nothing that the organization could do.

Akpene returned home with her head low, discouraged and dejected. The neighbohood kids continued their teasing. “Ahhhhh Junior,” they said, “They couldn’t help you? Oh, that is too bad.” But Junior’s head was not bowed in shame like his mother’s. Junior’s graciousness to these crude boys was unimaginable for a four-year-old. “They couldn’t help me because they are not the right people,” Junior preached. “I know that I will be healed, Although they couldn’t do it, I know…I believe…that one day I will be healed from this disease.”

Life for Junior went on. He constantly rose above the teasing. Akpene prayed for help, but succumbed to the fact that maybe Junior will never be helped. She grappled with the looks she received from others. Looks that said “Why don’t you do something to help your son. Look at him, he’s disfigured. You must be a bad mother if you can’t find help.” She saw it in the people’s eyes: the disgust. Those looks cut through her heart. “It is so difficult to be a mother to your disfigured child. It tore me apart to see the way people looked at me: like I didn’t love him enough to fix his bowed legs.”

An announcement on the radio on day changed everything. Junior and Akpene heard it together. They were both at home. Mercy Ships was coming. A big white ship offering free medical care. Help was on the way. Junior hobbled over to his mother, tugged on her dress and looked up into her eyes. “Mama, these are the people who are going to help me.”

Akpene was overwhelmed. Her young son, whom she spent so many nights worrying about wide awake in bed, was becoming the person she looked up to. His composure and resilience was comforting. She hoped and prayed that Junior’s intuition was right…and this ship would offer the help he so desperately needed.

Junior and Akpene walked hand in hand to the Mercy Ships screening sight in Lome. There were masses of people: Long lines and a cloudless sky with only the sun beating down relentlessly.

Akpene was inundated by the throngs of people. She and Junior stepped away from the crowds and bought some food from a street vendor. Akpene contemplated her plan of action. She wondered if they should wait in line or simply giving up. Junior, on the other hand, was filled with excitement. He was strong and steady. He eagerly anticipated the moment he would stand in front of the doctor who would say to him “We can fix your legs.”

Then, an angel appeared from the crowd. A women in blue Mercy Ships scrubs emerged from the crowds and long lines and walked over to the young boy sitting on the side of the road. She took the mother’s hand and said, “Come with me.” In that instant, Junior knew that God was using this nurse to bring him face-to-face with the people who would help him.

The nurse led Junior and his mother into the screening tent. The other children surrounding them were screaming out of fear: Fear of the unknown.

Junior stood silently as he was examined by a Mercy Ships surgeon. His composure was astounding and he was overwhelmed with happiness. “See mama, I told you. These are the people. The right ones,” he said to his mother. The doctor handed him a card with an appointment for surgery.

Today, Junior stands on straight legs. He is six years old and his mother tells the story of Junior’s transformation with pride. As the Mercy Ships Togo Field Service came to a close, Mercy Ships invited hundreds of distinguished guests to attend a Thank You event onboard the Africa Mercy. Government officials, Ambassadors, Doctors and other Togolese dignitaries filled the International Lounge. Hospital Managing Director Bill Martin addressed the crowd, thanking them for allowing Mercy Ships to serve in Togo and affect many lives. Then, Bill invited two very important visitors to come to the front of the room.

Six-year-old Junior, along with another boy, stood up from his seat and walked on his arrow-straight legs to the front of the room. He stood next to a photo of himself taken four months earlier. Bill asked the boys to point to their pictures. Junior pointed to his bow legs projected on the screen. Then he glanced down at the straight legs on his body.
Though one would think it was an unbelievable sight, it wasn’t unbelievable to Junior at all—it was what he always knew would happen.

He knew someone could help him, and he had been praying for Mercy Ships his entire life. Now, they have brought him Hope and he is Healed.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Guide de la Vie

On a hot July afternoon, Mercy Ships crew member Alex Williams drove from the Africa Mercy to the Hospitality Center with a special delivery. He had been given a specific and honorable mission to spread the word of God. He couldn’t help but think that he was about to make a difference in many people’s lives. Next to Alex in the passenger seat sat a box of brand new Bibles.

Alex arrived at his destination and unloaded the box, putting the Bibles on the table outside. He met with Hospitality Center Director Barry Wells, and Barry agreed to ask the patients to gather around for a special announcement.

Some patients who were resting inside peeked their heads out of their bedroom doors wondering what the commotion was about. Within minutes, a long line had formed outside under the large canopy tent. Alex and Barry informed the crowd that they had a treat for them: free Bibles for everyone! One by one, people walked through the line and accepted their new Bible. Within minutes nearly all of them had been given out. Recipients included patients, day volunteers, and patient’s family members.

The commotion and noise quickly ceased as, Bible in hand, each person sat on a bench outside and began thumbing through the pages. Instantly, they realized this wasn’t just any Bible. In the front it contained the New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs, but toward the back of the book, there was health information. It contained almost fifty pages of basic information about hygiene, malnutrition and diseases like HIV/AIDS.

Emily Odomé, a teenager who resides at the Hospitality Center, had an inquisitive look on her face when she noticed Alex handing out the Bibles. Emily was a plastic surgery patient who came to the ship every-other day for new dressings on her hand where she had surgery. Her curiosity pulled her over to the area where he was distributing them. Happily she got in line and received her very own, shiny new Bible.

It is nice to have a new Bible,” Emily said, “I used to have one but it was old and torn. This one is very nice. I will definitely use it.”

The Hospitality Center was not the only place that Mercy Ships handed out the Bibles. Mercy Ships was extremely fortunate to receive 1,000 brand new Health for Life (Guide de la Vie) Bibles that were distributed through the Programs office. Programs such as Agriculture, Mercy Ministries, Patient Life, and Mental Health were each given a large amount of Bibles to distribute.

Deb Jacobson, coordinator of the Patient Life Program, distributed Bibles to the patients on the ward. The Patient Life Program is responsible to caring for the emotional, spiritual, and relational needs of the patients. Deb truly appreciated the format of the Life Guide Bibles. “Not only are we providing the Word of God for the patients, we are providing them with materials for education. This is an immensely valuable resource-the combination of Bible and educational material.”

Mercy Ministries distributed Bibles to numerous different schools, churches and organizations in Lome. One teacher at the Ephata School for the Deaf in Lomé was extremely grateful for the Bibles. She said, “This Life Guide Bible is very good especially for teaching our students on hygiene, nutrition and health in general. In addition, they have the Word of God which is also essential for their spiritual growth. Thank you for sending them to us. May God bless you.”

Health for Life is a collaboration between three Dutch organizations: Netherlands International Bible Society in Almere, Ark Mission in Amsterdam, and Mercy Ships Holland in Rotterdam. Health for Life aims to provide people in developing countries with in-depth information for healthy lives, both spiritually and physically. The main goal is to contribute to the reduction of the world-wide HIV/AIDS epidemic. HIV/AIDS has affected at least 40 million people. Eighty percent of the world’s cases of HIV/AIDS are found in Africa. For this reason, Health for Life decided to give basic information about hygiene, malnutrition and other diseases to prevent the physical struggles people go through.

This unique type of health Bible is intended specifically for developing countries where the population has a high AIDS/HIV risk.

Health for Life Bibles have been printed in English, but this is the very first French language health Bible to be published. The first copy was given Mr. J.Hoogendoorn, Honorary Consul of Togo in Holland. Five thousand copies of Guide de la Vie have been printed. Mercy Ships has been given the privilege of being one of the main outlets to disperse the Bibles in Togo. The bible hand out at the Hospitality Center was the first step in getting the Life Guide Bibles into the hands of the Togolese people to jointly improve their spiritual and physical health. Mercy Ships is proud to be a part of Health for Life and will spread the Bibles to Mercy Ships patients, and beyond.

Alex handing a Bible to Afi. She has had multiple surgeries on the ship.
The long line to get Bibles!

A few caregivers browse through their new Bible.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Branching out from health care...

When Michiel Van de Visser came to Mercy Ships, he imagined he would be doing technical work that would indirectly change lives. Mercy Ships was in Togo to deliver free health care. Though important, Michiel’s position as an Electronics Technician did not directly influence the patient’s lives. Michiel was very skilled at his job and even became a Christian while serving with Mercy Ships. He loyally performed his duties working on the bridge equipment and the engine room equipment, ensuring that the ship was in tiptop shape for upcoming sail.
It never occurred to Michiel that he would have the opportunity to directly change people’s lives. “I had this thought about a year ago that I was going to come to Africa and teach. But I’m not a teacher at all. It wasn’t until I got here that I realized how that idea would materialize.” Health care may be the main purpose of Mercy Ships, but Michiel is a superb example of how Mercy Ships makes a different in people’s lives outside of the hospital—through capacity building.

Day Volunteers are local men and women who work for Mercy Ships during a field service. In Togo, Mercy Ships hired over 150 Day Volunteers to serve as translators, cooks, maintenance workers, among other things. In the Engineering Department, the day volunteers maintain the air conditioning, plumbing and other vital jobs that allow 350 volunteers to live and work on board.

Michiel was approached by a day volunteer that wanted to learn more about basic electronics. Alfred, the day volunteer, identified Michiel as a skilled worker and he wanted to learn more. Alfred saw Michiel as the right man to teach him. Michiel thought about the man’s request, and debated about how he could help him. Alfred was very curious and eager to learn. Alfred inquired about books or any other resources he could use to absorb knowledge of how to build and operate basic electronics.

Michiel prayed about the situation and realized this was the opportunity to teach that he had previously thought about! God wanted him to impart his electronics knowledge to a group of enthusiastic men who were eager to learn.

He and Alfred prayed for God to give them the wisdom, patience, and resources to follow this idea through. Alfred quickly identified four other day volunteers interested in participating in a course. Michiel researched on how to teach an electronics class. Within a very short time, Michiel found himself teaching an electronics class two nights a week to five zealous students frantically scribbling down his every word.

“I was really teaching myself to teach. If you are a teacher you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. I had a lot of on the job experience that I could offer them, but if I didn’t know something, I’d simply Google it!” Michiel said. For every hour he was in front of the class teaching, he spent at least an hour in preparation outside the classroom.

Getting materials was challenging. Michiel researched and found a good textbook online. He happened to be going Florida for a wedding so he had the books shipped to a friend’s house in Florida. Then he brought them back to Togo with him. All five of the students purchased the book. Luckily, through prayer and people willing to help, the class received all the resources they needed.

“The first three months I dedicated to theoretical teaching. I stood in front of a white board, explaining to them about basic electronic components,” said Michiel.

Oluwafemi, known simply as Femi, was one of the Michiel’s students. He was extremely excited about the new skills he has gained from the class. “I have been able to learn basic electronics. I’ve learned about soldering, and how to recognize printed circuit boards, and the various components that go into a printed circuit boards.”

Michiel felt it was very important for the class to put their theoretical knowledge to the test. They needed a practical application of what they had learned. On a personal trip home to Holland, Michiel purchased five electronic modeling kits. His brother graciously agreed to sponsor the materials. “I brought back the modeling kits, and they served as the ‘final exam’ of the course. Each student put together a different electronic device. It involved soldering and making their own Printed Circuit Boards.”

After months of learning it was time for the class to come to an end. Michiel felt these five men deserved some kind of recognition for the hard work they put into this course. “They all learned so much,” Michiel said, “I was so proud of them—They took their free-time to attend this class. They deserved something to show for their accomplishment.”

Africa Mercy Captain Tim Tretheway was happy to help Michiel honor these hard-working day volunteers. He had official Mercy Ships certificates made and the group held a certificate ceremony and informal graduation. After the ceremony, Femi felt blessed to be given the chance to learn something new. “I am grateful to God and to Michiel for giving me the opportunity to learn these skills.”

“Now these men have a skill,” Michiel reflects, “Something they can put on their resume to prove they have knowledge of electronics. I hope this expertise serves them well in the future.”

Mercy Ships seeks to put knowledge into the heads and hands of as many people in West Africa as possible. That knowledge—whether it is agriculture, mental health, dental hygiene or something else—will continue to spread long after the ship has sailed. Capacity building is a wonderful way to truly transform a group…a city…a nation. Providing aid is helpful, but it is simply a Band-Aid on a severely damaged body. If you give west Africans the knowledge to grow better crops or make better electronics, then that knowledge is a stepping-stone to building a stronger economy. Michiel invested his own time, energy, knowledge and resources in these five men. His efforts will undoubtedly continue to improve their lives many years down the road.

And he thought he wasn’t going to directly change lives…Think again.

Michiel teaching in Crew Mess.
Learning to solder

printed circuit board (PCB)

Practice makes perfect!
The entire class! Teacher & students in Crew Mess where they held class.
The Certificate Party/Graduation dinner
Michiel with an African shirt given to him by his students.
Graduated! Mercy Ships Electronics Class :)