When Helen Parker went to work at a health centre in Kenya run by the Anglican Church, she couldn’t understand why more villagers weren’t coming in.
Then she was told the people assumed that – just like at the government-run hospitals – they would have to pay for their medical care at the centre. Health care in Kenya was available for the better off only. Others believed that because they were not Anglican, they would not be welcome.
“I said it didn’t matter,” Mrs. Parker said in an interview from her home in Victoria. “The health centre is for the village.”
Not only would the staff treat the villagers for free, they would find a way to pay for any medication people couldn’t afford. The ambulance driver was sent around the village to set people straight. Mobile clinics were also sent out for people unable to reach the clinic easily.
A retired licensed practical nurse, Mrs. Parker travelled to the Diocese of Eldoret in Kenya under the Canadian church’s Volunteers in Mission program.
She calls the two years she spent in Kenya life-changing.
“It was a wonderful experience. I think I probably brought back far more than I gave to them. They have a zest for life that we have sort of lost, I think. They have such a faith. They live their Bible.”
Other volunteers have talked of similar life-changing experiences they have had in the far reaches of the Anglican Communion.
But a current dearth of applicants to the Volunteers in Mission program has co-ordinator Jill Cruse worried. While more than a dozen volunteers are currently at work in Brazil, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Madagascar, the Seychelles and the Solomon Islands, only two new volunteers have signed up for placements.
That’s the lowest level since the program began in 1986. Volunteers in Mission can’t afford to advertise so relies on coverage of volunteers by their home diocesan newspapers and by Ministry Matters which publishes letters from abroad, Mrs. Cruse said.
Mrs. Parker had read about the program in her diocesan newspaper.
“When I retired I still knew there was something I needed to do,” she said.
She went to Kenya expecting to nurse at the centre. As it turned out, the four nurses she worked with were diagnosing diseases such as malaria that Mrs. Parker was unfamiliar with. Language problems also meant that it made far more sense for her to work as the health-centre administrator.
That also is typical, Mrs. Cruse said. And it points to the need for volunteers to be flexible and adaptable.
“Very few people who go end up doing what they thought they would be doing,” she said.
Partners in overseas church communities may write to the program with a job description they wish filled (there are currently more than 35 available, including teachers, doctors, accountants, communication officers, community development officers and researchers) but they may discover their designated volunteer has gifts and talents that may lead in another direction.
“Things work differently in other cultures,” Mrs. Cruse said. “The expectations we have about ourselves, the baggage we bring with us about work, don’t apply.”
Indeed, while potential volunteers may find the prospect of a two-year commitment daunting, (although some requests are for a single year) it often takes as long as a year to really adapt to the culture and feel comfortable with the work. Mrs. Parker concurred that was indeed the case with her.
“For me, it took most of the first year to really understand the communities and what should be done and how to go about doing certain things. They had their culture and they had their taboos I didn’t want to break.”
Not everyone is suited to become a volunteer, Mrs. Cruse said. Of every 10 inquiries received, about one person eventually goes on a mission. Many of the volunteers are from the ranks of the recently retired. They have the time to travel, have built a lifetime of skills and still have energy to spare.
Not all travel alone. Some go with a spouse, others with their entire family. But it’s a rigorous screening and orientation process that can take as long as a year from the initial enquiry to the time a volunteer steps on a plane.
Each volunteer is responsible for recruiting a support group, typically through their home parish, that will help finance their stay. That may mean raising as much as $30,000 to cover travel and living expenses for two years.
Volunteers are screened by the national program which keeps in touch with them while they are overseas and communicates with the volunteer’s support group, provides an orientation and then a debriefing and re-entry program to Canada.
Returning to Canada was more difficult than the culture shock she faced in Kenya, Mrs. Parker said. She finds it hard to reconcile the materialism in Canada with the poverty she experienced in Kenya, where the nurses routinely delivered babies by flashlight, since electricity in the health centre was available no more than two hours per night.
“We have such abundance and we don’t really appreciate it,” Mrs. Parker said.
“If I had been younger, I’d have found a way of staying there and not coming back,” she mused.