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Canada Oct 7, 2017

Travellers’ extra luggage a real life-saver

By Jean Ko Din

Avi D’Souza (right) recently brought this suitcase, full of medical supplies, to a hospital run by the Missionaries of Charity Sisters in Peru. (Photo courtesy of Avi D’Souza)

TORONTO (CCN)—When the suitcase from Not Just Tourists (NJT) arrived in northern Ghana, it was like Christmas for one local clinic doctor.

He excitedly dug through the bags of IV kits, syringes, and wound care supplies in the suitcase to grab a set of physician’s gloves, mask, and gown. He hurriedly put them on and went straight to the operating room where dozens of his patients were waiting.

What the Ghanan doctor didn’t know is just days before the suitcase arrived, the equipment was were sitting in a huge pile of boxes in Roncesvalles United Church in Toronto. 

“Hospitals (in developing countries) just don’t have the right supplies, and local people suffer because they can’t have access to simple things,” said Avi D’Souza, founder and program director of NJT Toronto. “Here, we have oceans of supplies that we take for granted.”

NJT is a volunteer-run charity organization that began in St. Catharines, Ont., in 1990. Dr. Ken Taylor and his wife Denise saw first-hand the serious lack of medical supplies in Cuba, so they began to take suitcases filled with supplies to remote areas during their travels. Soon, word spread to their friends and the organization grew from there.   

About 27 years later, Not Just Tourists has nine chapters that have delivered more than 10,000 suitcases to 82 countries. 

D’Souza founded the Toronto chapter in 2014 after witnessing a traveller deliver supplies to a local clinic as D'Souza was just starting his eco tour agency, West Bay Tours, in Honduras. When he moved back to Toronto, he decided to get in touch with the Taylors to offer help. 

“To me, being a Catholic means serving,” said D’Souza, who is a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Parish in Markham. “I think faith through service is very important. It’s not enough to stay still. You have to go out and do things.”

The Toronto chapter (njttoronto.com) is a bit of an ecumenical effort, said D’Souza, with loyal volunteers from Christian faiths across the city. 

“Not Just Tourists is about love. People loving one another. People caring about one another,” he said.

D’Souza said rural doctors in developing countries too often cannot treat their patients. Surgeons are unable to perform life-saving operations because they lack something as simple as surgical gloves.

NJT volunteers hope to fill that need with a simple solution. Throughout the week, D’Souza and a core group of 10 volunteers pick up extra medical supplies from local clinics, hospitals, medical suppliers, and home care services.

Every Wednesday, volunteers come together at Roncesvalles United Church to sort through boxes of supplies and pack about $200-$300 worth into the donated used suitcases. These “packing parties” are also supervised by volunteer medical professionals.

Margaret Godke, a retired registered nurse and NJT volunteer, said the most fulfilling part is when travellers come to meet the volunteers packing the suitcases. Often, packing volunteers don’t realize that they are saving lives by sorting through medical supplies in the basement of a church in Toronto. 

When travellers can share their stories and talk about where they’re going, Godke said it is a wonderful feeling.

“When people come and pick up suitcases and say we’re going to Cuba or we’re going here, we give them a round of applause. That’s the most fulfilling part,” said Godke. “So it’s important to get the word out and let people know we need travellers.”

Travellers who are planning trips to developing countries can pick up one of these suitcases at various designated locations across the city. Travellers repack the suitcase in front of a volunteer and receive a letter for customs agents at the airport before they take the supplies with them on their vacation. 

“I just delivered the suitcase to a local hospital in Chiang Mai (Thailand),” said Beenish Saleem, NJT volunteer. “Once I got to the hospital the entire staff gathered and they were really overwhelmed to receive these supplies ... At that very moment there was a patient getting treated for his wound in the emergency room so they ended up using supplies I brought, so this was a really moving experience.”