By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Pleasant Homes co-owner and Morinville and District Chamber of Commerce President Simon Boersma left for El Salvador July 8 to continue the humanitarian work he began at the age of 18 when he began smuggling bibles behind the wall in Eastern Europe.
Today Boersma continues his humanitarian work as part of the Flying Doctors of Canada, a non-governmental, non-profit registered charity made up of general volunteers, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers, each committed to helping those most in need.
Boersma is part of a group of 35 people, including 24 medical students, going on the two-week trip that departs from Calgary Monday morning. The Flying Doctors are set to visit eight communities in the Central America nation this trip, two more than they visited in 2012. They are expected to see 2,700 patients during their time in the country.
This year’s journey will include the use of portable testing equipment to allow the medical team to learn quicker what medical services the people may need. “A lot of times people will say I’ve been sick for a long time but are not sure what they have,” Boersma said. “We can go by asking them questions, but it’s faster to just take a blood test. “We have all the medicine so they have it available to them immediately. We know that they are getting that medicine right away and the doctor can tell them how to use that medicine right away.”
Boersma said the team also has an x-ray machine to use in the field, allowing the medical team to identify bone fractures that may have been caused in the cane fields.
An important component of the trip is allowing students from Alberta and Manitoba the opportunity to see their patients not only in the makeshift clinics set up for the trip, but to see the way the people live in the villages. “A lot of people [on humanitarian trips] will work within towns, but they never see,” Boersma said. “Three miles out or even a mile out, you’ll see a change. It’s like the curtains are drawn. You’ll go from good condition to below average condition instantly. You look into the woods and you wouldn’t know there are 50 people living there, just living in poverty, gnawing on raw fruit just to sustain themselves.”
Proactive rather than reactive
The Flying Doctors are presently doing one trip to El Salvador each year with a follow up trip by a couple of volunteers to ensure everything identified by the group is carried through.
For Boersma and the other volunteers in the Flying Doctors organization, the work extends beyond ensuring ailments are treated. The project is also focused on ensuring the communities in El Salvador and Nicaragua become sustainable communities.
“We don’t want just a Band-Aid solution,” he said. “In order to make live in the villages more sustainable, how do we do that? Where I started was sitting with some of the community elders to find out what there needs were. We went away from the big projects that are $300,000 or $400,000. We wanted to see what is the need of the average citizen. We found that one of the biggest problems within the communities was their cooking. Women are having problems breathing. The problem comes from them being over open cook fires.”
Boersma explained in the communities the organization works, stoves are not in the principal dwelling. They are in an external cookhouse, covered to protect against the monsoon rains. Boersma’s expertise as a builder has allowed him to play a significant role in addressing the problem by teaching the El Salvadorans a new way to build a cook stove, one with a chimney to vent the smoke far away from the cooks’ lungs.
It has not been an easy task. “They’ve cooked like this for years, so now you are re-teaching them,” Boersma said, adding the project is not only about building a new style of stove, but teaching them how to build them so they can share that knowledge with other neighbouring communities. “We don’t take that with us. We leave all the tools there for them.”
When the work is done, it is the smile on the faces of those they help that is the biggest reward. “It’s like they got Christmas all at once,” he said of the new cooking tools and the ability to use them. “We build everything so they will use it because a lot of time we, as North Americans, will give them things that they really won’t use. I see gas stoves, and you will see a propane bottle sitting off to the side. The propane bottle needs to be fit, and they only have wood. That propane bottle is not going to be filled. It was very nice somebody dropped that off, but it was a gift that didn’t keep on giving.”
Lessons brought back home
Boersma said the trip also results in lifelong gifts being received for the organization and volunteer students. “We see a change within the students and we see a change within our lives,” he said. “What is our mandate over there? It is not just to bring North American culture because we don’t want to do that. They have a great culture. They are very smart. I always say it is a vitamin C shot. It’s going in for that daily dose. We can give them that dose to get over that hump a lot of times.”
While Boersma and the Flying Doctors of Canada are bringing new lessons and a new outlook to communities in Central 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 18, smuggling bibles into the Eastern Bloc when the walls were still up, something that would have resulted in a two-year prison term had he been caught. The work has become a way of life that has taken Boersma to parts of Africa, Haiti, Nicaragua and El Salvador. He has been involved with Flying Doctors since his brother-in-law and some doctor friends formed it five years ago. At that time, 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. “It’s part of me,” he said. “I think for the most part it’s who I am.”
But it is when back on Canadian soil that Boersma really has a chance to reflect on what the work means. “I think automatically you become more involved because you see what is missing here in certain aspects, or what you don’t want to go wrong,” he said. “It’s not that there’s a lot of things going wrong here. It’s that you see certain things that could go wrong if we leave certain things to go undone. I think a voice within a community is a big thing. We can’t just take. We need to give back. We are stewards of our communities.”
For more information on the Flying Doctors of Canada visit flyingdoctors.ca.