Volunteer Voices: Willemijn & Melanie from the Netherlands

As part of an ongoing series, we give our volunteers the opportunity to share their experiences directly. For our first “Volunteer Voice” series, Willemijn and Melanie, medical volunteers from the Netherlands, give insight into why they chose to come to Ghana, why they picked WAHEF, and what their expectations are from their medical volunteering experience.

Who am I? Who are we?

These were the questions I needed to answer before I could start working on a long-cherished wish of mine: working abroad as a medical volunteer. But let’s start at the beginning.
In August/September of 2018, my desire to volunteer became stronger and stronger, until this finally turned into an actual plan: I was going to work as a medical volunteer abroad! However, I kept saying in my mind that I hadn’t really talked to anyone about this desire of mine, which I have had since childhood. This is because I know that there is a cliché about the commonly used phrase: “I want to help people”.
In the hospital world, many healthcare providers claim to have chosen the profession because they want to help their fellow human beings. Nevertheless, this is really difficult to do in the prevailing hospital culture wherein you always have to make sure that you achieve excellent results, that you efficiently provide care in order to reduce your workload —or so you hope—, that you make a name through showing up at conferences or through publications, and all this while never complaining about how tough your job really is.
It is often reported that volunteer organizations across the globe provide little transparency when it comes to their money flow, their recruitment of interns, and their strategies for gaining publicity. As for the group of Westerners who like to sign up for short-term volunteering, they are mostly known for their preference to sign up for volunteer work that can be combined with pleasant travel activities. This is also known as ‘volunteer tourism’.

Who are you and for whom are you doing it for?

I made the conscious decision to no longer occupy myself with the existing clichés about my wish. Indeed, I was able to break free from those restraints because I truly want to help people. I started to prepare for a trip that suits me, that fits with my sincere desire to contribute something to improving health care in those areas where little money and care is available.
A long search on the Internet led me to smaller volunteer organizations. These organizations have a good connection with the local population and realize that they must fully support those projects and goals that need to be achieved in their country.
West African Health and Education Foundation (WAHEF) in Ghana turned out to be the perfect match.
In September 2018, I came into contact with a young group of Ghanaians and an American. We compared their goals and mine in an open conversation to come up with sustainable solutions for the current quality of regional health care in Ghana. In the following months, several project plans were written to ensure that my month of volunteering could be planned as efficiently as possible.
As the plans for the project took shape and it was certain that I would be traveling to Ghana in July 2019, I finally presented my plans in my work and private life.

Who are we?

Just before the end of 2018, Melanie picked up on my story. At that time she was busy with the final phase of her nursing education. Melanie and I know each other from the medical lessons that I teached every other week. I fondly remember that she came to me after a lesson and wanted to know more about the trip to Ghana. After all, she had long wanted to do volunteer work abroad. The summer of 2019 would be the perfect moment for her to be able to contribute, seeing as by then she would be a recently graduated nurse.
Ever since that time, we have held monthly meetings to further develop the project and to make our first preparations. These preparations included gathering materials from all over. In fact, we managed to collect an ever-increasing pile of resources through Facebook, at the Red Cross, through friends and co-workers, and through the hospital where we both work at; Noordwest Ziekenhuisgroep Alkmaar (NWZ).
What started as an enthusiastic plan to take along some leftover things in an extra suitcase quickly turned into a huge collection that has to be shipped in a sea container. This collection is so large that it had to be stored in four separate places over the last four months. We ended up launching an online donation campaign to cover the shipping costs of these materials and to purchase some important missing equipment for the trip.
During this period we received heart-warming reactions and support from family, friends, co-workers, old acquaintances, and strangers who became aware of our project. In the last weeks before our departure, we received many questions about and much praise for our trip. On the one hand, it feels incredibly nice. But on the other hand, it makes you think again. I once again started pondering the questions that this story started with:

Who am I? Who are we? Who do we think we are?

Melanie and I chose to go into health care at a young age and we are now listening to our long-held desire to help people. We have discovered that helping people can be done in many ways and comes in many different shapes and sizes. Melanie and I have learned from many different perspectives over the recent months and have experienced that each stone, big or small, contributes to the development of health care in those areas where little money is available.
We are not going to Ghana expecting to be their savior, or to return to the Netherlands as such. Because this would mean that we feel superior to the Ghanaians we are going to work with. As far as we are concerned, the true heroes are those people around us. It is everyone who has contributed and supported us throughout the preparation process of our journey. The other heroes are the Ghanaians who are waiting for us in Ghana. They will introduce us to their country, culture, working methods, and challenges within medical care.
We are going to Ghana as students hoping to learn. We will approach this new environment with an open mind, hoping to be able to leave something positive behind, a small stone with which they can continue to build.
In the run-up to our trip, we would like to personally thank a number of people and groups for their contributions:
Our colleagues from Noordwest Academie Alkmaar for their donation of a nursing simulation doll, educational materials, and books; our colleagues from the NWZ Acute Medical Unit for their donations; the pediatric diabetes nurses from NWZ Alkmaar for donating diabetes materials; the Mental Health Unit of NWZ Alkmaar for their generous donation to WAHEF; Stefan Tomasoa for donating certain remaining materials from the NWZ Alkmaar medical warehouse; Erik Huisman (GGD Haaglanden) for donating BARCO radiology displays; Simone Smeele (GGD Haaglanden) for the collection of needles; George Henning (Alphen aan den Rijn Red Cross) for the storage and inventory of all the medical supplies; Rob van Dam (Alphen aan den Rijn Red Cross) for donating medical materials and walkers/crutches; Joost Groenendijk for the English translations of these blogs, among other things; Mohammad JD for the inspiration and conversations; Ingeborg Elders (STMG thuiszorg) for donating materials; Duncan Alsemgeest for donating materials; Nienke Klijn for donating materials; Sharon (First Aid) for donating materials; the Van Erven family for donating materials; Nursing home D’oude Raai for donating materials; and finally, our families, in-laws, and Jeroen (Willemijn’s boyfriend) for their immense support and dedication during this entire start-up process.

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