Founded in 1978 by Don and Deyon Stephens, Mercy Ships has been reaching out to international communities in need for almost 30 years. Their mission is to bring hope and healing to the poor, mobilizing people and resources worldwide. The aid of Mercy Ships has brought help to more than 40 countries including Brazil, China, Haiti and South Korea and the expertise of their volunteer teams have successfully completed thousands of surgeries including cleft lip and palate corrections, tumor removals and orthopedic surgeries.
This latest endeavor brought specialized services including physical and occupational therapy, counseling and family support, community health education and orthotic and prosthetic devices to Sierra Leone, after more than a decade of war torn disarray.
The need for New Steps
The civil war in Sierra Leone, which lasted from 1991 to early 2002 when it was officially declared over, left tens of thousands dead, millions displaced and thousands disabled by rebel mutilation. The rebels were brutal in their attacks on villagers to gain control of the diamond mines, a well-known Sierra Leonean commodity. Wielding machetes and axes, the rebels made examples of innocent men, women and children throughout the country killing some and amputating others.
The media coverage of these atrocities caught the attention of Mercy Ships, said Von Driggs, desk officer for Mercy Ships Sierra Leone.
In 2000, a cargo container turned O&P manufacturing shop was brought to Sierra Leone. A small office and physical therapy center were also set up to accommodate the program in the coastal city of Freetown. New Steps was on its way to becoming the permanent land fixture that it is today.
At the time, there were no trained prosthetists or orthotists in the country and most of the people who were trained or had degrees left during the civil war. Therefore, the program needed to start small.
“When we started out there were about eight ex-patriots who went there initially to get the program started and begin working with other Sierra Leonean staff,” Driggs said.
The team arrived to find Handicap International already on the scene with the same intentions.
“We did not want to duplicate the services they were already providing so we did a further assessment and determined that there was a large population of people with disabilities who were being underserved – primarily people with polio,” Driggs told O&P Business News.
The two organizations grew to work hand in hand serving both patient populations.
Mobilizing a community
When the New Steps center opened, disabled Sierra Leoneans – specifically those afflicted with polio – started to move out of the provinces surrounding Freetown and began clustering around the capital city in smaller communities.
“These communities of disabled people who had polio ranged in size from about a dozen to one that had about 125 members and that was the target group that we began providing services for,” he said. “The focus was primarily making calipers and leg braces for people with polio.”
New Steps worked in collaboration with Handicap International and other organizations to mutually refer certain patients when staff limitations were a problem.
“At some point, we may not have had a prosthetist or an orthotist who could make specific devices that were needed,” Driggs said. “If we did not have anyone who could do it, we would refer the patient to Handicap International and they did.”
Sometimes mobilizing a community starts with mobilizing the efforts that make such an enterprise possible. Since 2002, assessment teams on behalf of New Steps have gone on treks up country to meet with groups of disabled people to uncover their needs. These treks can sometimes include taking castings and measurements for mobility devices to be created at the home base in Freetown and returned to the individuals on the next trek, Driggs explained.
This new method of service delivery came in response to the difficult logistical struggle of patient travel by public transportation.
“We found out a long time ago that it is difficult for people who are disabled to get public transport to come to the facility who are coming from long distances,” Driggs said. “That is why we started our treks out into the provinces and are trying to help them that way.”
Reintegrating a community
In addition to giving the gift of mobility, the New Steps program also sets out to reintegrate the people with disabilities into their communities and further the growth of these areas. Sierra Leoneans, as with many underdeveloped countries, view physical disability as a sign of spiritual flaw which forces community members to ostracize those who are afflicted with these differences.
“You can have a potentially bright child who is not only physically disabled, but he is also emotionally disabled because of a lack of support from his family, village or community,” he said.
For these children, New Steps has incorporated a reintegration program particularly for those who attend public schools.
Driggs said that they have about 175 children who are disabled in different ways from polio to multiple sclerosis. These 175 students are able to attend school due to funding approval for not only school fees but also for wheelchairs and building the appropriate access ramps and additions to make their attendance possible.
The program also works alongside parents and teachers to help change the outlook that Sierra Leoneans have toward physical disabilities. UNICEF funded this venture for the first 3 years helping teachers, administrators and parents to come together with New Steps counselors to learn the basics about working with disabled children.
Mercy Ships is continuing to seek out ways that they can help address disability issues in other countries.
“It is encouraging for me to see that as an organization, Mercy Ships is continuing to look at how they can help disabled people in countries where our ships visit,” Driggs said.
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Jennifer Hoydicz is a staff writer for O&P Business News.