St. Catharines, Ont. "We often joke that we help turn tourists into missionaries," says Dr. Ken Taylor. Along with his wife, Denise, this family physician founded Not Just Tourists, an organization which enlists Canadian tourists in its drive to distribute medical supplies around the world.
Delivering basic aid
Both in their 50s, Ken and Denise have volunteered in their local Anglican church -- which has a sister parish near the village of Santiago De Cuba in Cuba -- for years. Through their Cuban counterparts, they learned just how scarce medicines were in the countryside. So, 10 years ago when the Taylors were planning a cycling trip through Cuba, Ken packed a suitcase with some antibiotics and other supplies. Once there the Taylors gave these out to physicians in remote jungle settlements. Denise recalls cycling up a mountain along a dirt track -- "It wasn't even a road" -- to a tiny one-room clinic. "Patients were sitting on a semicircle of boulders outside: that was the doctor's waiting room," she says.
Although they were well-educated and up-to-date, most of the doctors had such limited access to medicines that they could offer only herbal treatments to their patients. "One doctor told me that he hadn't had any antibiotics for his patients for two years," says Ken. As a result, people were still dying from such simple problems as infected wounds, problems that basic medicines can cure.
Such inadequate health care shocks many travelling Canadians, and the Taylors were no exception. Once they saw the tremendous need and poverty up close, Denise and Ken vowed to help. Learning that the Cuban government allows every tourist to bring in up to 10 kilograms of humanitarian aid each time he or she enters the country, the couple -- along with 10 friends -- returned that year carrying suitcases full of supplies.
Organizing more aid
Back in Canada, the Taylors contacted local hospitals, pharmacies, drug company sales reps, and agencies such as the Victorian Order of Nurses asking them to make donations of surplus medicines and supplies. "There is just so much that gets thrown out here -- still sealed and sterile -- that has potential value in Third World countries," says Denise.
Soon the couple had transformed a small storage space into a mini-warehouse. About two dozen shelves are stacked with bottles of medicine, rolls of sterile gauze, surgical gloves and other supplies. Every week volunteers, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists, help Denise and Ken carefully check, sort and categorize the incoming donations. Ken or one of the other doctors custom-tailors an assortment to suit each recipient country (there are no narcotics, however, because of the problems posed by their street value). A covering letter explaining that the items are a humanitarian gift eases the travellers and their packages through customs.
To ensure that the aid reaches the right person, Ken requires those delivering supplies to obtain a signed receipt from the receiving physician and return it to Not Just Tourists. "Some are nervous about taking drugs to a foreign country," says Ken, "but then they take them, and they see the reaction that they get, and they want to do it again."
How other Canadians can help
Canadian travellers now take more than 6,000 kilograms of medical aid to 30 countries each year, and took more than 3,000 kilograms in 2003 to Cuba alone. As the word about Not Just Tourists spreads, more and more tourists come to the Taylors wanting to help. "A lot more Canadians are on the move, and we're only too happy to assist them to help people in another country," says Denise. "Most say it's the highlight of their trip to be able to meet the local people and take medical supplies to those who desperately need them."
The Taylors share that feeling. Denise remembers one of the couple's first trips to Cuba: At one stop, a group of locals asked to see the doctor from Canada. "Ken sat down with them and started treating them and giving them medicine," she says. "He turned to me with a look of sheer joy on his face and said, â€˜I feel so good.'"
For more information, visit www.geocities.com/notjusttourists.