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Catholic Vancouver May 2, 2018

Parish building clinic in pastor’s hometown

By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Dr. Steve Burns from Powell River meets villagers in Irudayampattu, India. (Photos submitted)

An impoverished village in south-east India has captured many hearts in Powell River.

Irudayampattu, home to 60,000 people, is so remote that the closest hospital is several hours’ drive away on decrepit roads. The people are so poor that few own vehicles. No nearby medical care means one untreated snake bite leads to untimely death or permanent disability and a loss of livelihood.

“Quite a few people with devastating snake bites aren’t getting much of any treatment,” said Powell River doctor Stephen Burns, who travelled to the village three years ago. Villagers are “dying or end up with huge disfiguring wounds that could leave your foot or leg non-functional.”

That disability is tragic news, especially for young men working to support the rest of the family. Then, said, Burns, “there’s really no transportation for women going into labour, or serious injuries, or people who need to go to the government hospital. They are cut off from access.”

So neighbours in Powell River – with Catholics from Church of the Assumption at the helm – have been planning and trying to raise $110,000 to buy an ambulance and build a medical clinic in Irudayampattu.

“They are building a clinic in my village,” said Father Irudayampattu “Dass” Arokiadass, the assistant pastor of Church of the Assumption.

Father Dass was raised in and named after that village – nearly four times the population of Powell River – and knows the dire situation his people are in. When he was contacted by Burns – a doctor looking for suggestions of where to take his son on a medical volunteer trip – about three years ago, he suggested they spend some time in Irudayampattu.

Dr. Burns holds a makeshift clinic under a tree in Irudayampattu.

“It’s a very poor spot,” said Burns, who spent one week in the village with Father Dass. “They had no clinic or anything there, so we were just doing blood pressure and blood sugar checks and talking to patients literally under trees.”

He saw people sleeping on the streets or living in four-feet-tall huts made of mud and straw. He met children who were too poor to go to school, people suffering from untreated malaria or leprosy, and young men so disabled from snake bites that they could no longer work.

“The hospitality of the people is just incredible,” he said. “Despite their having nothing, you would see them and they would invite you over, and if they had a couple of mangoes, they would want to give you whatever they had.”

The idea to bring hospital access to Irudayampattu was born in the airport on the way home.

By the time they landed in B.C., Burns and Father Dass had talked about ways they could raise funds and build a clinic in India. When they brought the idea to the parish and other Powell River community groups, everyone was on board.

“It’s been very rewarding,” said Lu Wuthrich, a member of Church of the Assumption and the chair of the fundraising committee. She said the parish has hosted several fundraisers, including garage sales, t-shirt sales, car washes, and bake sales, which have been far more successful than the parish’s usual events.

A single garage sale recently raised $6,000, while a regular CWL bake sale that usually brings in $200 raised nearly three times that amount when people found out the cause. Three fundraising dinners with medical professionals from Powell River brought in a large sum, and Wuthridge had the project featured in the local Powell River Living magazine.

“We’ve had some big contributions and donations,” including from community members who “wouldn’t normally be giving money to the Catholic Church.”

In less than a year, the small team raised $90,000, putting them only $20,000 shy of their goal.

“The first step of the project is to buy an ambulance,” said Wuthrich. The next step will be to start building a two-storey clinic in Irudayampattu itself. The first floor will be the clinic itself; the second will include sleeping quarters for nuns and volunteers who will work there.

It’s not the first time the Church of the Assumption has rallied around Father Dass and the village he grew up in. In the last five years, Irudayampattu has built a new well and received many animals for local farmers thanks to parishioners.

Burns said the village was full of surprises during his first visit, and he is looking forward to visiting it again. “They were extremely impoverished but a really happy group of people,” he said. “They were probably happier on average than the average Canadian.”

He hopes to see the new ambulance running in a few months, and the clinic built and fully functional by the spring of 2019.

The team is also currently in talks to secure funding for clinic operations for its first three years, hoping it will eventually become self-sufficient.

For more information or to support the project visit https://webproposalproject.wixsite.com/partnersinprogress.