Volunteering Brings Enduring Gifts

Project HOPE
World Humanitarian Day Blog By Project HOPE Volunteer Nurse Susan Opas

I grew up in an Air Force community and was gratefully mentored towards my goal to be a nurse by an Air Force nurse. Talks of relocation and life in “foreign countries” were shared by childhood friends. I too wanted to travel, learn first-hand about lands, people, their cultures and their ways of living. Due to my role as a full time University-based nursing educator from 1974 to 2001, along with raising children, travel out of the Continental United States wasn’t possible. In 2001 I made a career move from the University to community-based specialty practice in developmental/behavioral pediatrics. While I love this specialty practice and the patients and families we serve, I am not involved in general pediatric healthcare. But, in this practice, I can arrange time off. Through a family member I became aware of Project HOPE’s varied volunteer and humanitarianism opportunities - many collaborating with U.S. Military and other NGO groups. The missions presented on the website were rich with opportunity to renew my basic skills, travel to unique (and real) – less visited places. To places I would be challenged to give care to children, perhaps more in need than those near home.

My best memory was my first mission, Pacific Angel 2011 staged several miles outside Pekanbaru, Sumatra, Indonesia. HOPE warned there might not be sufficient need for a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner – which made me smile then and now. The primary mission was to see how rapidly the Air Force could set up a “Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief” unit - a pallet-bound tent clinic and city ready to travel and be functional, within a day. The clinic opened to over 800 patients the first day. Adults brought their children along as they were full time caregivers. As families learned their children could be seen, the volume increased by the hour, then over the days. Pediatrics became so busy the Family Practice MDs began seeing as many children as adults.
World Humanitarian Day

Each year since 2011, I have felt honored when accepted to a new mission. 2012 was Pacific Partnership aboard the USNS Mercy. I boarded in Manado, Indonesia to travel the Philippine Islands including Samar and Cebu. Living as do our Navy personnel opened my eyes to their discipline in service. When not at an Islands’ clinic examining, treating, and learning of that community’s ways of living, I volunteered aboard ship. I loved working the Mess line. There I had the chance to thank our Service persons for their dedication at home and abroad. It was exciting “manning the rails” as the Mercy steamed in to Subic Bay, Manila. 2013 was aboard the USS Pearl Harbor. I joined this multinational military and NGO mission in New Caledonia and traveled to Manado, a highly populated Marshall Island. In 2014 Typhoon Haiyan destroyed many Philippines lands. HOPE sent emergency responders to Tapaz Island. In September I examined children in the local hospital, met with community and military leaders of Tapaz to review the Island’s recovery and ongoing needs. Once again in 2015 I worked with Navy providers, this time aboard the USNS Comfort anchored outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I saw so many with so little resources since the 2010 earthquake. June 2016 was PacAngel in Kampot, Cambodia, a multinational, East-West sharing of health care information and hands-on care.

I am asked, “What is humanitarianism?” I am repeatedly humbled by families who wait in long lines in hot and humid weather for me to examine their children. Their thanks and signs of appreciation are my enduring gift. Seeing the resilience of children and compassion of their elders resets my moral and emotional compass and grounds me. How fortunate I am to be in this nursing profession I love. Earning the chance to share knowledge among national and international peers affirms my worth. Upon my return I want to kneel and kiss home ground with thanks for my opportunity to give of my skills and my time. Many parents, co-workers and friends want to hear of my adventures. I feel through telling my stories they gain empathy for others and may find a place or organization where they too can give in their special ways. Coming home, I am often physically exhausted, but days later I start thinking about my next opportunity.