Mercy Ships Canada is an international faith-based organization that runs a hospital ship to provide free, life-changing surgeries in Africa. In its 36 years of travel along the African coastline, it has treated some 2.5 million people.
Almost all the medical staff and crew members working onboard are volunteers from around the world. They live and work on the 152-metre-long Africa Mercy anywhere from two weeks to five years.
Toronto native Marina Priolo, 26, just returned from a two-year stint on the Africa Mercy ship as a human resources assistant in the ship’s administrative office. Priolo said it was the best decision she ever made.
After graduating from Acadia University in 2011 with a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Business, Priolo took a job as a bookkeeper. Though she liked her job, she was looking for a change. A friend had just returned from volunteering on the hospital ship and recommended she give it a try.
“I wanted to make a greater contribution,” said Priolo. “I felt like this was a way for me to do that and I wanted to experience things from a different perspective.”
Whenever Africa Mercy makes port in a new city, it is greeted by thousands of people who have travelled for days for the chance of life-changing surgery.
Oral and maxillofacial surgeries are the most common surgeries performed on the ship. Staff treat many diseases and defects in the head, neck, face, jaws and mouth.
Many people come to the ship with facial tumours and defects. They believe they are cursed and would often live isolated or marginalized from the rest of the community. For them, the ship is their only hope for a new life.
Priolo spent her two years on the ship at port in Madagascar. Although she did not participate in performing surgeries, she wanted to be a part of making that difference.
As a human resources assistant, she helped manage the comings and goings of the 400 volunteers on the ship. She worked with five other staff to ensure the medical staff and crew had the support they needed to do their work.
Priolo made sure every day counted. Even on her down time, she was looking to do small things that made a difference for the people on the ship.
“Writing thank-you cards, I learned how much of an impact you can make to just leave them a note on their door, even if it’s just anonymous, to give somebody encouragement,” she said.
She describes the ship as a floating village. Apart from the hospital, the ship also has restaurants, cafés, a school and a chapel. There was always something to do and people to meet.
Priolo said her experience taught her to be more kind and generous. Everyone on the ship had something to teach her.
“Here, we’re so concerned with what we have and the joy we derive from having things,” she said. “They have so little but they’re still so happy and they’re so joyful.... Their fulfillment does not come from the things that you can buy.”
Some of Priolo’s most memorable experiences on the ship were the worship services conducted in the chapel. Most onboard the ship are Christian and so the chaplaincy team frequently runs Bible studies, fellowship groups and Sunday worship service.
“I come from a Catholic upbringing so it was very different for me on the ship,” she said. “But once I had time to experience it and open myself up a little more... my prayer life has been a lot more full.”
Since she returned home in August, Priolo had been reflecting on all she learned the past two years. She is back in school, studying law at the University of Ottawa. As she begins this new chapter in her life, she is determined to take the lessons she learned on the ship and keep it with her as long as she can.
“I think I just have more trust that God will lead me to where He wants me to go. I don’t want to go back to who I was before I got on the ship. I want to move forward, use what I learned and apply it to what I’m doing now.”
The organization is planning to launch a second ship next year and an entirely new crew of volunteers will be needed to run that ship.
For more information, visit MercyShips.ca.