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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Making a Difference

The primary purpose of the Mercy Ships Hospitality Center is to provide a comfortable setting in which patients can regain their strength and health before, after, and in-between surgeries. The results have been extremely positive, resulting in the highest turnover of surgeries to date. But the Hospitality Center (HC) is proving to be more than just a temporary medical facility.

Recently, Ellen de Pagter of the Netherlands took on the role of Mercy Ships Disciple, which has resulted in patients having the opportunity to receive counseling and basic education. "Half of the time I try to be one-on-one with the patients. The other half of the time I try to do group teachings on things like the alphabet, French, English, and basic mathematics," said Ellen. "It's mostly about helping them regain their confidence by being in a group again and to be more secure about themselves."

Ellen, who worked as a primary-school teacher for five-years in her home country, has her own classroom - an unused therapy tent - in which she conducts her classes at the HC. As there are patients of various ages always coming and going, her class is forever changing. "It can be difficult because some patients stay for eight weeks, while others for only a few days," she explained. "The type of teaching depends on who is there."

Ellen encourages classroom participation, as she believes this is the key for patients to regain their self-confidence and reintegrate themselves back into community once their disfiguring ailments have been surgically corrected. "It makes them believe in themselves again; it gives them confidence to speak up in a group. Nobody here is laughing at them because everyone has a problem," she said.

But sometimes the humiliation and pain suffered can be so severe that some patients have difficulty even adjusting to the HC community. Fortunately, this is why Ellen is on hand to counsel such individuals.

"We had a patient some time ago named Christina. She had a hole in her face, and she would just sit in the corner by herself all the time. It took me a few days to realize it because she would always hide in the dark where nobody could see her.

"I began to sit with her and slowly began to ask her why she wasn't participating or attending the classes. 'People think I smell bad, that I look ugly, and they are not happy to be around me,' she told me. It was very sad. I encouraged her and prayed with her. It was the start of the weekend, so after that I didn't see her for two days. But when I came back, I saw her happily sitting with the other people, and I thought, 'Wow! It takes just thirty minutes to speak with someone, and it can make such a difference to them.'"

There are always opportunities for Ellen to minister and educate. Recently, twenty ladies suffering with VVF (vesico-vaginal fistula) arrived at the HC from the north of Benin. Their surgeries and recoveries will require them to remain for up to three weeks in the care of Mercy Ships. Ellen hopes to be able to impact their lives in some way. "I think about eighty percent of them never went to school. I'm going to teach them to read and write," she said. "That's something important I can give them."

With the Hospitality Center having proved its worth during the course of this year, the concept will continue to be implemented in future Mercy Ships field services.

"The Hospitality Center is an environment where you can see a change occur in someone within a week," Ellen said. "I don't think anybody leaves the same as when they arrived. I see this change in parents and the way they treat their children - they become more gentle, more caring, more friendly."

"I do feel like I am making a difference. At first I was just doing what I could and trying things out, but last week I took time to observe the people, and I could see in some that they were learning something," she added.

Ellen's work is helping to bring hope and healing of another level to the people of Benin. As she continues her valuable ministry into next year's field service in Togo, she is already thinking of ways to improve her effectiveness - which, no doubt, she will achieve. "It's about healing the inside by serving from the outside. I think they have a lot of pain inside. This is a way to solve it."

Written & Photographed by Richard Brock

Edited by Nancy Predaina

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