By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – There is a certain synchronicity in the fact Pleasant Homes service manager Simon Boersma would devote so much of his time in third world countries helping communities establish their own pleasant homes. Boersrma is part of the Flying Doctors of Canada, a non-governmental, non-profit, registered charity made up of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers as well as general volunteers who are all committed to helping those most in need.
“The Flying Doctors of Canada fills a void within third world countries in South [and] Central America,” Boursma said, adding the organization is also looking to expand into Africa. “We found a void where a lot of people come with band aid solutions into third world nations. Band aide being that they will give medicine; they will do certain things, but they don’t have a long-term effect on the community.”
For Boersma and the other Flying Doctors volunteers the answer is in ensuring the communities in El Salvador and Nicaragua become sustainable communities. That path includes building clinics with the organization supplying the funding and the community supplying the labour, creating a joint initiative between the two groups.
“What we try to do is marry ourselves up with an organization that’s within the country,” Boersma said. “We’ve tied ourselves in with organizations that are already on the ground and are present so that we, as volunteers, can still do our job here and then move over there when we need to.”
Presently the Flying Doctors are doing one trip to El Salvador each year with a follow up trip by a couple of volunteers to ensure everything identified by the Flying Doctors is carried through. In Nicaragua, the group is going into areas where there is no medication, decent water supply or even proper stoves for people to cook with.
Boersma explained in the communities the organization works, stoves are not in the principal dwelling. They are in an external cook house which is covered to protect against the monsoon rains. “There’s only a little door, no windows, and they’ll’ have a little trough where they put all their dishes,” he said. “When you look up, against the glass or slate or wood ceiling, you will see nothing but creosote and black soot hanging down. This is also going into the lungs of these ladies, young children – little girls that help mom in the kitchen. They’re in their cooking beans all day long.”
The volunteer said the large wet logs used to create the cooking fires create other problems, particularly when they tumble from the pile, breaking a child’s leg or toppling boiling pots onto the women and children working in the small buildings. Boersma’s group is illiminating the health and safety problems by helping them build proper stoves and ventilated facilities to house them.
“Having a solid stove there, it just eliminates a lot of stress right off the bat,” he said. “Now [that] we have a fire that is a controlled fire, cooking goes a lot faster because you do have two spots for pots just like you would over a gas stove.”
But delivering new methods and new technology does not happen without the consent and cooperation of those receiving the assistance. “We want them to be an integral part of the [plans for a] new stove, the new medication,” Boersma said. Determining who gets a stove is left to the community to decide, with community leaders selecting those most in need.
Lessons brought back home
While Boersma and the Flying Doctors of Canada are bringing new lessons and a new outlook to communities in Central and South America, it has also resulted in shaping Boersma’s own worldview, allowing him to live his daily and professional life through the lens of a bigger picture. It is a frame of reference that has developed over the years since he first began volunteering in humanitarian initiatives at the age of nineteen.
His volunteerism on the world stage began in 1980 in Somalia and after that time has become a way of life that has taken him to parts of Africa, Haiti, Nicaragua and El Salvador. He has been involved with Flying Doctors since it was formed three years ago by his brother in law and some of his doctor friends. Boersma was asked to take on the construction and civil side of the program.
Boersma said a sense of giving back is what has kept him involved in humanitarian work for so many years.
“Each one of us can give something back to the community, and it’s the greater community, not just within,” he said. “We like to give back to our own community here, but I think that the next step is to go out into the greater community and give what we have.”
But it is when back on Canadian soil that Boersma really has a chance to reflect on what the work means. “You realize that life is a lot bigger than it is,” he said. “There’s more to life than everyday work. It motivates you to go on to do the next year.”
The volunteer said the people in the communities the organization helps become like family, creating a two-way situation where he takes away as great a value as he is giving through the organization. “As you go year after year, you become a friend to them and they become a friend to you,” Boersma said. “It’s a lot deeper than a give and take relationship. That’s one of the things we try and do with the Flying Doctors and with other groups I’ve been with over the years – we try and foster strong relationships with the right people. A lot of times different organizations will send in balloon payments, and we feel good because we’ve written the cheque, but there’s no relationship.”
Boersma said the relationships are key and once the relationship is built it must be maintained. “The two-way relationship is the most important thing we can do,” he said. “It’s like that customer service. We want to make sure that our relationship is there.”
Those relationships have served to remind the volunteer and others that life has more meaning than the dollar bill and to teach him the importance of personal and business relationships back home. “People become more important to you,” he said. “I think a lot of that ties into an everyday lifestyle for me, and I think it has over the years. It plays a big part in who I am, how I react towards things, and what I want to accomplish down the road. I think your goal setting changes with these kind of things. It’s not about the biggest house. It’s not about the Jonses down the road. It becomes more focused, and yet a bigger picture. The world isn’t just Morinville or Edmonton or Alberta – it’s Africa huts with the Zulu people, it’s the Central America indigenous people that are living on the mountains growing corn that is 30 years old. How do I change that?”
The Flying Doctors of Canada will soon be going to seven communities in Nicaragua to install stoves already built and to build approximately another 50 with the assistance of university students from Alberta and Manitoba. Boersma will be traveling on that trip, continuing the humanitarian work he started three decades ago.
For more information on the Flying Doctors of Canada visit flyingdoctors.ca.