When we think of helping people in impoverished parts of the world, we often think of signing online petitions, making cash donations or volunteering. But bringing about meaningful change can be as simple as carrying an extra suitcase on your next overseas trip.
Avi D’Souza has been doing that for about four years, since he discovered a grassroots Canadian movement called Not Just Tourists (NJT). Now the Toronto resident brings an extra suitcase with him whenever he goes on vacation. On his most recent trip, he stopped in Tonga, the tiny Polynesian kingdom of more than 170 South Pacific islands not so far from New Zealand and Australia.
The suitcases are filled with medical supplies, perfectly usable castoffs donated across Canada. They include things like bandages, gauzes, tape and syringes, and even some sealed medications – simple but essential pieces in any medical toolkit. They don’t include opened or expired medicines, liquids or narcotics.
NJT was started in the mid-1990s by Ken Taylor, a doctor from St. Catharines, Ont., and his wife Denise, who started bringing medical supplies with them to remote areas of Cuba. They felt that country had a lot of well-trained medical professionals but a shortage of medicines and supplies. Today, NJT sends kits to the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and Asia.
D’Souza learned about the movement four years ago while he was living in the Honduras and saw some tourists bringing suitcases full of medical supplies.
The organization doesn’t compete with other groups – in fact, it claims it delivers into clinics and hospitals in areas that need more support than is available through formal aid programs. Travellers know through experience which facilities have ongoing need for supplies.
D’Souza says the supplies are primarily donated by individuals – typically families looking to dispose of supplies after a loved one has died – or hospitals looking to manage their inventory. “There are warehouses full of perfectly good medical supplies that get thrown away every day,” he says.
Volunteers search for such unwanted supplies and then pack suitcases full for travellers to take abroad. To meet airlines’ security requirements, the travellers must unpack and then repack the suitcases so they can truthfully say they packed the suitcases themselves. Canada’s two big airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, don’t charge extra for suitcases with humanitarian supplies and D’Souza says sometimes arrangements can be made with other carriers, as well.
The travellers don’t always have a drop planned for the supplies – that’s part of the fun. When they arrive at a destination, they go in search of a clinic or individuals who can make use of them. “Sometimes, it’s almost serendipitous,” says D’Souza. One time, he ran across a man who needed urinary supplies and D’Souza’s kit just happened to contain what the man needed.
NJT has chapters in several cities across Canada, although not all are active (emails to the Calgary and Edmonton chapters went unanswered). The biggest is the Toronto chapter, which has delivered more than 1,000 suitcases to 64 countries. D’Souza estimates that more than 10,000 suitcases have been donated over the years.
There are as many stories as there are donations. D’Souza remembers hearing from a man in Cuba who needed syringes for his medication but had to reuse old syringes until they were so dull they no longer pierced the skin.
“This is such an amazing organization,” he says. “I want to do this for another 25 years.” Even the founders, the Taylors, are still making deliveries.
NJT is looking to expand its reach across the country. If you’re intrigued by this simple, cheap way to put a little charity into your next vacation, check out the NJT website at http://www.njt-pqt.org/. You can also send D’Souza an email at [email protected] or the founding Niagara chapter at [email protected].
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.