For most travellers, a suitcase is something to be packed and checked during their trip, only to be stored after their vacation is over.
But for hundreds of Canadian volunteers transporting medical supplies each year – and the many recipients in countries around the world – it’s a lifeline.
Founded in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1990, Not Just Tourists now counts in excess of 100 organizing volunteers and many more participating Canadian travellers in several chapters across the country, who each year help transport medical supplies during their vacations. To demonstrate just how much is donated, the Toronto chapter alone donated three tons of supplies in 2014, after forming in June last year. Travellers with NJT Toronto brought the supplies to many countries, including Syria, China, Haiti, India, the Dominican Republic and Sierra Leone.
Volunteers come from all walks of life, said Avi D’Souza, head of NJT’s Toronto chapter, with the organization counting members ranging from retirees to medical professionals (both new and experienced); even an ex-Snowbird pilot has participated in the organization’s mission, said D’Souza.
“It’s meaningful for travellers to be able to interact with local residents,” he said, “and this is an excellent way for them to bridge that gap.... Travellers have the capacity to go where other agencies may not reach and it’s important to me that travellers have an experience beyond drinks on the beach.”
Similar to NJT’s original founding by Ken and Denise Taylor (after a trip to Cuba inspired them to help residents of travel destinations), D’Souza, head of NJT’s Toronto chapter, said he joined the organization by founding a branch in his hometown after living in Honduras for several years (operating a charter boat service), where he witnessed the conditions some residents were living in, barely able to afford basic necessities let alone medical care.
“You see so much suffering and hardship and a lot of it is preventable by simple things, like bandages and antiseptics, the most basic supplies,” he said. “The average income in Honduras is less than $300 a month, so people can’t afford healthcare; if it’s not subsidized or free, they just can’t afford to treat even very basic things.”
The organization relies heavily on donations of surplus medical supplies from hospitals and clinics. While the majority of supplies transported by NJT consist of basic medical items such as latex gloves, bandages and gauze pads, D’Souza said that larger donations, such as a defibrillator donated to Syria and endoscopy equipment shipped to a clinic in Honduras, have also taken place.
Still, the simple supplies are sometimes the most needed. D’Souza recalls an NJT volunteer bringing a suitcase of IV connectors to a Cuban hospital serving a community of 20,000 people, where IV services had been shut down due to a lack of the supplies.
“Their eyes lit up when they saw the IV connectors in the suitcase,” D’Souza recalled. “The hospital had shut down its IV services so they sent a courier to pick up the connectors so they could resume immediately.”
D’Souza also noted the partnerships that make NJT’s work possible, including the many hospitals and clinics providing supplies, as well as MEC (which supplies the organization with some of the donated suitcases) and WestJet, which allows travellers to check one piece of baggage containing goods for humanitarian purposes.