Cou­ple trav­el­ling to Cuba will bring suit­cases full of med­i­cal sup­plies

Ottawa Citizen - - CITY - AN­DREW DUFFY

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.

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