Friday, March 24, 2017

The A Team

I’ve written a lot about ship life and the countries we’ve visited, but I haven’t mentioned much about what happens before the ship arrives…
It all starts several years ahead of time when official representatives of Mercy Ships meet with the government of a country that has invited us to come. Mercy Ships never sends a ship to any country that has not given us an invitation. The goal is never to force ourselves into a place – we want to partner with each country we visit to determine together what services are beneficial and what ways we can help them the most. Once Mercy Ships determines that a country could be a potential site in the future, the two groups work together to develop a “Protocol”. This is basically an agreement of what Mercy Ships will provide and what the country will provide (things like a place in the port, visas for crew to enter, the ability to ship in food and supplies, and partnerships with hospitals and medical providers, etc.). This protects both our organization and the government while also ensuring that both sides are on the same page to prevent issues down the road. Once the Protocol is signed, it’s a high likelihood the ship will enter that country in the next 12-24 months. (Which means this is happening 1-2 countries beforehand!)

This is not the actual Protocol signing but imagine a very similar situation with our founder Don Stephens (left) and an official from the country.

About 6 months before the ship is scheduled to arrive in a new country (we call it “Country Next”), the real groundwork starts. A group of crew members from the ship go to that country to make preparations. We call them the Advance Team (or the A Team, because why not?!). This team is responsible for a bazillion things, all aiming for the final goal of having as much prepared as possible so that when the ship arrives in country, surgeries and training can start quickly. Their tasks cover a wide range of things from setting up registration for ~40 Mercy Ships vehicles, to ensuring the dock space is fit for our needs, to setting up local partners for medical training courses and hiring over 200 Day Crew (translators). Definitely no small task and this team are heroes for what they accomplish in just a few months’ time!

Advance Team-Cameroon 2017!!
Another important responsibility is letting the local people know that the ship is coming. Much of this is done by word of mouth! Africa, in general, has a very ‘community culture’. Everyone is a friend of a friend who knows this person or that person :) The word about free surgeries generally starts through churches and local NGOs that Mercy Ships has partnered with. In the past, posters, radio, television and text messaging campaigns have also been used. See my post about the Screening process here to see how the advance team is using local workers and technology to find a lot of potential patients. This will be increasingly used this year as Cameroon is several times the size of Benin (It’s about the size of California!) and it would be nearly impossible for one group to reach the whole population.

Enough from me. My friend KJ is on her 3rd advance team and has written a great blog that explains it very well and gives a breakdown of each team member’s role. Check it out here:

Would you consider praying for this group and the huge task they have ahead of them? God has worked miracles in Benin and we know He is preparing for many more in Cameroon! Our ship family was privileged to have the opportunity to commission this team before the first element left last week. It was a sacred time of prayer for blessings, safety and divine appointments in the next 5 months until the ship arrives in this next place God has called us to. They would be so grateful to know that they are being prayed over from all over the world!

Laying of hands and prayer over Advance team members - March 2017

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Celebration of Sight

Did you know that Mercy Ships also has an eye program?
In January, "Mercy Vision" kicked off in Benin with a goal to provide several hundred free eye surgeries! Removing cataracts is the main focus of this team and they will perform these surgeries on both children and adults over the next few months until the end of the field service. They also do other eye screenings and distribute reading glasses. Part of the program is held at the local hospital in Cotonou, called CNHU, where Mercy Ships volunteers train local nurses and surgeons so that these surgeries can continue after the ship leaves.

Many of these patients were born with cataracts; others developed them over time and have been blind for many years. A cataract is basically a clouding of the lens of the eye that blocks vision. I can't even imagine what it is like to live without sight - to be completely dependent on others to get around and not be able to work or care for your family!

Maurice waits hopefully at eye screening to find out if the Mercy Ships' surgeons will be able to fix his cataracts.
A simple outpatient surgery to clear the clouded lens is performed in a few minutes and these patients go home the same day. It's incredible that this small procedure can change the course of a person's life - especially when that person has no hope to find a surgeon or pay the exorbitant fee to get cataract surgery in this country.

Last week, I was privileged to get to witness the first Celebration of Sight in Benin this year! A few weeks after their surgeries, the patients return for a follow up appointment and then they all join together for a time of praise and thanksgiving to God for giving them back their sight. Other Mercy Ships crew members are invited to come and join in this celebration of 44 people whose vision has been restored. There was music, singing and lots of dancing- as well as several testimonies from a few of the patients! Young and old patients alike shared stories of waiting years for someone who could fix their eyes or trying to save huge amounts of money only to be told their case was too difficult for the local surgeons. One after another they came to the front, praising God for bringing Mercy Ships to their country and healing their sight, until the chaplains finally had to limit the number for lack of time!
I want to declare this day, the 17th of February, ‘The Day for the Celebration of Sight’!” Says Rita, who dances in her pink patterned dress, able to see for the first time in years. “Every year on this day, you must praise God with your family,” she shouts. “ Praise God that we have sight!!!

I'm so thankful I had the opportunity to attend this celebration. It was an honor to witness these transformations and hear some incredible stories of HOPE restored. The eye program did not run while I was on the ship last year so this is the first experience I've had with it. Vision truly is so important in life and I'm very glad the program is back again this year in Benin to change more lives one eye at a time! Just another way Mercy Ships is following the model of Jesus to heal the sick, give sight the blind and bring good news to all people.