Couple travelling to Cuba will bring suitcases full of medical supplies
William Leung and Melissa Amelotte will be travelling to Cuba for a beach vacation later this month with stacks of luggage — almost all of it filled with medical supplies for the storm-ravaged island nation.
Leung and Amelotte are among dozens of local travellers who have enlisted with Not Just Tourists — Ottawa, a not-for-profit group that relies on overseas vacationers to ferry medical supplies to remote health clinics.
“This country needs the help: it was hit hard,” said Leung, 32, a short-order cook at House of Targ, a Bank Street arcade and pierogi restaurant.
Leung and his girlfriend plan to travel with six suitcases packed with donated medical supplies to Varadero, Cuba on Sept. 25. They’ll also be carrying school supplies, diapers and children’s clothes.
“Everything we need will be in our backpacks,” he said, “and we’re going there anyway, so we thought we should just bring a bunch of supplies and spend a few days delivering them.”
The Ottawa chapter of Not Just Tourists is in high gear as it arranges for supplies to reach medical clinics in those parts of northern Cuba besieged by Hurricane Irma. The destructive Category 5 hurricane made landfall in Cuba on Sept. 8.
Jacques Chenail, co-ordinator of the Ottawa chapter, said most of the donated medical supplies are from home care clients in the region who cannot use all of the material delivered to them. (In May, responsibility for home and community health care was transferred from the Community Care Access Centre to the Champlain Local Health Integration Network, the regional health authority.)
“We’re redirecting very valuable items from landfill: there’s so much wastage,” said Chenail, 69, a retired technical translator who has been working with Not Just Tourists — Ottawa since his wife, Mary Metcalfe, founded the organization in 2005.
Preparing for a trip to Cuba, Metcalfe read a Reader’s Digest story about the original group in southern Ontario and she decided Ottawa should use the same ingenious scheme to deliver supplies overseas. She reached out to friends and family members, and enlisted some nurses from The Ottawa Hospital.
The volunteer organization has grown steadily ever since and now delivers thousands of kilograms of medical supplies and equipment each year: walkers, wheelchairs, hospital beds, prosthetic limbs, surgical instruments, respirators, bandages, syringes, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medication, asthma inhalers and examination gloves.
Tourists who want to help can carry something as small as a ziplock bag, or something as large as a 23-kilogram suitcase.
Air Transat, Air Canada and WestJet have all offered waivers for excess baggage to travellers ferrying humanitarian supplies.
Initially, most of its suitcases were delivered to Cuba, but as the organization has become better known, it has expanded its international reach.
Not Just Tourists — Ottawa has delivered supplies to 90 countries, and has sent 15 shipping containers worth of material to war-torn Syria. Some of that material has come from local hospitals, clinics, retiring dentists and doctors, one of whom donated his entire office contents.
Volunteers in the Ottawa region co-ordinate pickup and delivery. The equipment is stored in basements, garages and spare bedrooms until it can be sorted, packed and carried overseas by travellers like Leung and Amelotte.
“As Canadians, we have a lot more than most countries so we should do what we can to help,” said Leung, who heard about the organization from a friend.
The original chapter of Not Just Tourists was founded in the mid1990s by a St. Catharines physician, Dr. Ken Taylor, and his wife, Denise, who were appalled by the conditions they found at medical clinics in Cuba. Seven chapters of the organization have been established in cities across Canada.
We’re going there anyway, so we thought we should just bring a bunch of supplies and spend a few days delivering them.
William Leung and Melissa Amelotte are heading to Varadero, Cuba later this month with six suitcases packed with much-needed medical supplies. They’ll also be carrying school supplies, diapers and children’s clothing.