Do short-term missions trips really help?

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I had my first conference call for our trip to Haiti last week.  Three out of five of our group members called in, and we had a chance to talk to each other, and to the group leaders, about the upcoming trip.  Most of it was helpful information to assist us in preparing for our trip, travel information, and knowing what to expect once we get there.

One of the things that I asked, that was not (initally) answered to my satisfaction, was “what kind of work will we be doing once we get there?”.  The answer that I received has lead me to do some introspection about my motives for going on my trip, as well as some more reading on the pitfalls of short-term missions trips.

What I was told is that we will be flying in and getting settled on Saturday, April 9th.  On Sunday we will get to go to church in the mountain village of Chambone with the people who live there.  Monday through Thursday we will have an opportunity to experience the things that are going on at Heartline Ministries.  We will be visiting 1-2 schools that are associated with Heartline’s sponsorship programs, and likely one orphanage as well.  We may be involved in a maintenance project if there is a need, or sorting and stocking supplies.  In terms of our medical skills, their goal is for us to be able to find a niche within the ministry that suits our skills and our passions, so we can start to build lasting relationships with the organization, and be in ongoing partnership with them if we wish.  They frequently do missions trips at Heartline, but apparently this is their first medical team!

I am really excited to do all of those things.  From the start, I have really just wanted to help where it is needed, big or small.  But I admit I was a little surprised that there didn’t seem to be an area where I could just let loose with my mad, crazy, nurse skills.  I am very task-oriented much of the time (show me a nurse who isn’t!).  So when people ask me after my trip, “what did you do there?”, there is that part of me that wants to be able to fill in that blank with proclamations like “I administered 200 life-saving vaccines and debrided festering wounds!”, or something equally nurse-y.

There is actually a lot of buzz out there that talks about how short-term missions trips (medically or surgically-related trips in particular) can actually harm more than they help.  The premise of having a group of Westerners swoop in to offer their services for one or two weeks has not necessarily been shown to improve health outcomes in third-world countries in the long run.  Follow-up care is often inadequate to maintain any kind of lasting effect.  Moreover, these types of interactions often undermine the efforts of local health care workers, by giving the people the impression that adequate health care can only be administered by Westerners.  It does little to provide the people with a sustainable system by which they can continue to receive adequate follow-up treatment and care for chronic conditions.

I admit I have never taken this into consideration.  I have always been of the school of thought that “every little bit helps”.  But does it?  Some have argued that the money spent to transport and house a team of volunteers could go much farther if given directly to the host organization.

I read a very interesting article, published by G. Schwartz in 2004, which addressed the issue of wanting to be task-oriented in our approach in short-term missions.  In it he says,

“…in the preparation of short-termers, the anticipation of “doing good” for someone else is frequently overplayed.  Americans are to be commended for their willingness to help those whom they perceive to be in need.  Our worldview includes a substantial portion of charitable or philanthropic concern.  Some of it is driven by the benefit of a tax-deductible receipt, some by a spirit of adventure, but much of it is genuine compassion.  “Doing” (what we accomplish) is often in conflict with the importance of “being”, (who we are).  This important distinction could well be at the root of the problem.  Someone once referred to such people as “human doings”, rather than “human beings.”

He further goes on to say, “…the attitude that an ‘outsider’ can do the job better than ‘local people’ is often at the heart of how we as westerners view ourselves….Our challenge is to find a way to help that does not leave others with the impression they are too weak, too helpless, and too uninformed to help themselves.  “

It seems, then, that if we want to truly help those in need (at home or abroad), we need to find a way to do so that truly sustains them, builds their communities, supports and builds infrastructure, and honors each person’s humanity and dignity.

I guess that is what I love about Heartline, at least what I have seen of it so far.  And I guess that is what my team leader was trying to tell me on the phone, when she answered my question about “what” we would be doing.  Heartline’s focus is on building long-term relationships, strengthening the families and communities in the area, and showing love in practical ways.  I want to be a part of that.  Even if that means I don’t get to unleash all my mad crazy nursing skills.  I want to be a learner.  I think that missionaries who have given their whole lives to a work like this have much to teach me, and I would be wise to watch and listen.  “Do” less.  Listen more.  Be still.  I fully expect that I will receive much more than I give on this trip.  I hope to bring back with me a renewed focus for life in a first-world country, which itself is not lacking in opportunity to help others.

I started reading an excellent book this week, called When Helping Hurts: Alleviating poverty without hurting the poor… and yourself.  Wow.  So much content in here.  This book has already deeply changed the way I think about the world around me, and yet I feel the need to read it at least a few more times, so I can internalize it all.  I feel like really internalizing and implementing the things in this book would take a lifetime.

For those of you who have participated in short-term missions trips, medical or otherwise, I would love to hear your comments below regarding your experience, and your perception of the value of such trips!
Image credit:  Naypong Image by 9comeback at Freedigitalphotos.net

Article credit:  Glenn Schwartz, 2004.  How short-term missions can go wrong.  International Journal of Frontier Missions, 20 (4), 27-34.

 

 

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The (not so) inspiring story of how I became a nurse

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One of the first things we learned in nursing school is that nursing is a vocation.  The English word “vocation” is derived from the Latin word vocatio, which means “a call or a summons”.  Thus, nursing is distinguished from other occupations which may fall into the category of “profession” or “job”.  Knowing that we were pursuing something as noble as a vocation made us nursing students feel quite sophisticated.  Even though in the mid-90’s at my alma mater we had to wear white sneakers and a pinafore for clinical, which, by the way, is the opposite of sophisticated.

People inevitably assume that nurses have selfless, altruistic motives for pursuing their vocation.  Indeed, I have many colleagues who became nurses for such reasons.  Some of them had a positive experience with a nurse who cared for one of their sick family members.  Often nursing spans many generations, leaving a long family legacy of nurses who talk about gory hospital details around the Thanksgiving table.    Obviously, we didn’t go into it for the money (though I will admit that compensation for nurses has improved in recent years).  Job security is a big plus that many speak of.

I think that nursing ended up being a good career choice for me, and makes good use of my personality and my skills.  I have never been a good traditional classroom learner, in the sense that sitting and listening bores me to death, as does any kind of desk job.  The practical side of nursing and the hands-on skills work well for me in that way.  Also, I think that my tendency toward OCD is an asset, rather than a liability, in my chosen profession.  Bonus points when you can make your mental health issues work for you, right?

However, the way that I stumbled into my profession is not at all noble, and, in fact, borders on ridiculous.  I actually like telling this story because it amuses me, so some of my closer friends and family will have to forgive me for the re-telling of it.

I did not enjoy school.  High school was particularly traumatic for me, and I still have recurring dreams about it that make we wake up in a cold sweat.  I was a good student, however, and it was expected that I would go to university ( or “college”, for my American friends).  I had no idea what I wanted to do, and I really had no aspirations at that time.  Wait, I take that back.  Up until the end of 10th grade I wanted to be a dancer!  I was going to go to Julliard and the whole nine.  If you need a visual for what that would look like, let me give you one:

 

 

wait for it….

 

 

 

BAM!!

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OK, now that we have that image burned into our retinas, let’s move along shall we?  Besides being a world famous dancer, what I always knew I wanted was to get married, have children, and raise a family.  But I had to finish my education to get my parents off my back, so….off I went.  Though I grew up and went to high school in Canada, I chose a small Christian liberal arts college in Rochester NY.  There were several things I liked about that school, but the main reason I went was because they allowed me to transfer my “grade 13” (which Ontario had at the time) high school credits into my freshman year, so I could transfer in as a sophomore.  This meant I could complete my Bachelor’s degree in 3 years instead of 4.  Which meant this whole exercise of getting an education would be over quicker–score!!  I thought at the very least I could meet cute boys.  (Too bad I didn’t know at the time that the school had a 2:1 female to male ratio and all the other girls had the same goal!).

I chose to major in social work with a psychology minor.  Since I didn’t have any real career aspirations, what I was looking for in a major was for courses that looked easy.  Like the kind of course that I could show up for class but not have to work too hard.  This is amusing to me now because there is absolutely NOTHING about being a social worker that is easy.  However, those intro courses were pretty simple for me to coast through.  But….I didn’t really like them.  And I figured I should like my major.  So at the end of my first semester (midway through my sophomore year now), I made my way down to student services to consult with one of the career counselors.

I took one of those tests where you fill in the bubbles with a #2 pencil, and then it spits out this report of your strengths and weaknesses, with potential careers that would be a good fit.  The test showed a strong affinity toward the medical field, and the career counselor suggested that I go and talk to the Director of Nursing.  She was this older woman, the not-so-smiley type, you could say.  Uber-serious.  She said my grades were good enough to be accepted into the program, but because I had missed a lot of the prerequisites I would have to take 1-2 semesters to catch up, and would have to graduate with the class of 1998, instead of 1997.  She said that it was possible to try to catch up with my class, but it would be really hard and hectic and I *probably* couldn’t do it.  Oh.  Hell no.  I came to this school to graduate in 3 years, and I was not going to spend a whole extra year catching up!  Also, who did she think she was, telling me I “probably couldn’t do it”?  I could do it if I wanted to!  So there.  Turns out, in addition to being unmotivated and lacking in career aspiration, I was also equal parts stubborn and defiant.  Also good nursing qualities, right my fellow nurses?

So I decided to show that crotchety lady who didn’t believe I could catch up, that I could.  It turned out to be just the push that I needed, and gave me some focus with a clear goal to work toward.  I called my parents after I switched my major to tell them the good news.  I figured my mom, who was an OR nurse for 25 years, would be excited.  “Oh Tracy, don’t go into nursing!”, she said, experienced as she was with the not-so-desirable aspects of her profession.  I’m going to be honest with you and, mom,– I am so, so sorry–but the fact that my parents told me not to do it MADE ME WANT TO DO IT EVEN MORE!  Again, mom and dad, I love you, thanks for putting up with me all these years.  But, then again, your stubborn apple didn’t fall far from the tree–just saying.

I am proud that I am a nurse, and I am thankful that I have a skill set and experience that allows me to be consistently employable and to help others.  Like I said, it has been a good fit for me.  But is this my “calling”?  Was I “summoned” to a life of serving the sick and infirm?  Well, you just heard my story, so obviously, no.  But I do believe that I am in a unique position to “bloom where I have been planted”, so to speak, and use my skills and experience to serve and help others.  However, if tomorrow God decided to summon me to a life of reading books on the couch in my sweat pants, I would not at all grieve the loss of my nursing career!

I personally think that it is a little presuming and self-promoting to call nursing a vocation.  To, in one breath, say that you were called to an altruistic profession, and yet in the next breath, toot your own horn for said altruism.  It implies that being a nurse is somehow more noble and more holy than being a teacher, an engineer, a custodian, an accountant, or a garbage man.  Can God use me as a nurse?  Yes, I believe so.  But it is so interesting to me that in the Bible, God also used the most unusual people to do His work–a prostitute (Rahab), a Samaritan (dude from the wrong side of town), a banished criminal (Moses), a pre-pubescent shepherd boy (David), and a carpenter’s Son.

I would like to leave you with this thought.  Let’s just all take a moment to THANK GOD that he chose to use me–my skills, my gifts, and my life–as a nurse, and not as a dancer.

 

This isn’t as much fun as I thought is was going to be…

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A few years back, I worked the “close” shift every week on Friday evenings at the pediatric office I worked in.  Everyone else would leave between 4:30-5:00 pm, leaving me and another nurse to care for the pre-weekend stragglers needing strep tests, albuterol nebulizers, etc.  There is something about working those off-shifts that really fosters a strong bond between coworkers.  My nurse friend and I used to refer to our Fridays as “therapy night”.  There in the quiet office, after all the sick stragglers had left, we would go through labs, finish up the day’s work, and talk about things that needed to be said, but are hard to say out loud with lots of people around.  We both had small kids at the time, so most of the time we ended up talking about parenting, and the inherent struggles and frustrations that come with having little ones.  It was not uncommon for one of us to get teary during our Friday evenings.  One of the things we used to lament over was how, when your kids are young, people with older kids, teens, or fully grown children will tell you things like, “I would give anything to go back to that stage.  It just gets so much harder as they get older!”, or  “little kids have little problems, big kids have big problems”!  I cannot even begin to tell you how much distress this caused us.  Here we were, two young mothers, feeling stretched to the max, with the people around us telling us it was going to get harder?  Lord, have mercy.

If I look back on parenting then versus now, I wouldn’t say it gets harder.  It just gets different.  It is easier in some ways, but more challenging in other ways. (Let me qualify this by saying I don’t have any teenagers yet!)  For instance, I no longer wake up every 3 hours at night to feed and change a baby–easier!  I never have to potty train the fruit of my loins ever again–easier!  I don’t have to follow a toddler around everywhere to keep him from killing himself on what is normally a totally benign household object–easier!!  I can do all kinds of things now like take a shower (alone), go upstairs (and leave the kids downstairs), and even sometimes pee alone.  However, there are all these new challenges that come up when your kids are older and just navigating life in elementary school– from math homework, to bullies, to drama with friends, to trying to figure out where they fit in.  And something about guiding your kids through it brings up all your old “stuff”.  At least it does for me.

I have another good friend whose daughter, when she was younger, was known for saying, “this isn’t as much fun as I thought it was going to be.”  She apparently would say this often, usually while on an outing of some kind that one of her family members had carefully and lovingly planned.  There they would be, in the middle of bowling or hunting butterflies or what-have-you, and she would make her disappointed declaration.  Gotta hand it to the kid for being honest, at least.

It hasn’t really been that long since our family passed the baby and toddler stage, but already, with my kids at the age of 7 and 9 years, I sometimes find myself looking back at their younger years through rose-colored glasses.  I remember how fuzzy their baby hair was, their fat little hands clapping together, their conversational babble, and all their “firsts”.  I catch myself thinking that their present stage “isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be”.  I forget those Friday nights when my coworker and I would put our heads down on our desks because of how hard it was then, trying to hold everything together.

I think it is hard for us to say these things to each other about parenting, because no one wants to be perceived as being ungrateful for their family.  We all want to be the kind of people who “count our blessings”.  Those of us, such as myself, who had to journey through infertility before having children, feel even more pressure to “be thankful”.  Also, there’s always those one or two people who, when you try to lay it all out there, say something like, “oh, I am just loving each and every stage along the way!”, which of course makes you feel like a total loser.  So let’s be clear.  Just because I think parenting is hard, does not mean that I am not grateful for the experience.  However, at least for me, it is difficult to do something that is hard while pretending it is not hard.  I want to be able to be as authentic as my friend’s daughter, and just be able to say, “this isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be”, and have someone chime in with a “me too!”.

So, those of you who are reading my blog thinking it is about my trip to Haiti are probably wondering how you got suckered in to reading about my parenting insecurities.  Here is how it relates.  For me, my late 20’s and early 30’s was all about my babies–getting pregnant, staying pregnant, raising my little ones, and experiencing all of the joy and pain that goes along with that phase of life.  My life, my time, and my body were not my own, and it was good, it was what I wanted.  I’ve had my head down for a long time, just doing the work that goes along with it.  Now they are older and more independent, and I feel like both my kids and I have moved on to a different developmental stage.  For them, they are becoming more independent and figuring out the world on their terms.  For me, my family is still my primary focus.  However, now that I am sleeping through the night again and not changing diapers anymore, I feel like I can lift up my head and look around me.  Going to Haiti is, in a sense, ushering in this new phase of looking around and seeing how I fit into the world.  For those of you who are in the thick of things with your little ones (or teens, aging parents, marital issues, or other life circumstances), please don’t read this blog and think that you too somehow have to go out into the world and “do something”.   Maybe you need to keep your head down right now.  A time may come later when you can look up again.  Also, let’s not listen to the people who say it “gets harder”.  

 

Grumpy nurse

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I have a confession.  I don’t know if I like people.  This is insane, right?  I am a NURSE, for heaven’s sake.  I work with people ALL DAY.   OK, so maybe that right there is the ticket,  maybe the fact that I work with people all day is the reason why I don’t like people.  I am sure that all of us at some point have seen “grumpy cat”, that beloved feline image that has taken over the Internet with his lovable yet snarky little pout.  Grumpy cat is my favorite.  If I were a cat, I would totally be grumpy cat.  He is cynical yet lovable.  Just like me, I think.

My days as a nurse practitioner have turned into this exercise of endlessly suppressing my inner grumpy cat. Mostly so I don’t get fired.   I think that many nurses, teachers, social workers, secretaries, customer service representatives, or anyone who works closely with people 40+ hours per week can relate to this at some point in their careers (or at least I hope so!).  I am hopeful that, as my mother would say when we were kids, “it’s just a phase”, and that I can start looking for the good in people again instead of just naturally zoning in on the things that irritate me.

I feel a great deal of angst and guilt over my aforementioned grumpiness because, a) I am waist-deep in a career that is all about helping others, and b) I am a Christian.  I don’t feel like either of those identities permit me to have those feelings.  Or if I have them, I certainly can’t express them without feeling very awkward and vulnerable.  I am supposed to love and serve people, not look at them through a cynical lens.

Enter, my favorite book in the whole wide world, Carry on Warrior, which led me to my most favorite blog, Momastery.  This woman makes me feel normal.  She is a brave, bold, teller of truth and a self-proclaimed spreader of hope.  She has a really big online community associated with her blog which is truly like a family.  One of my favorite things that they do is something called “Love Flash Mobs”.  During a LFM, her online community will raise money for a particular cause in a set time period, usually 24-48 hours.  And the rule is that no one can give more than $25.  I had the opportunity to participate in a few Love Flash Mobs, and it was awesome.  Just awesome.  To sit on your couch, in your comfy pants, give $25 through PayPal, and watch countless other people do the same until, whammo!  Suddenly a group of people has raised a million dollars in 48 hours for refugees in Europe fleeing from war in Syria and landing, soggy and destitute, on the shores of Lesvos.  Or raising enough money for those within their communities undergoing financial hardship to buy Christmas gifts for their children, and then some.  One particular Love Flash Mob I participated in was aimed to raise money for a maternity center in Haiti, called Heartline.  This online community of sisters raised over $475,000 in 24 hours for Heartline to add another wing to their maternity center.  And just like that, my faith in humanity slowly started to be restored.

This is is where the saying, “it is more blessed to give than to receive” comes from, I think.  I love the idea that very few of us could afford to give half a million dollars to help a maternity center in Haiti or Syrian refugees fleeing war.  But if everyone helps out a little, there is such power in that.  It’s like we all need each other in order to help each other.

And so, I began reading about the Heartline Organization, and learned that they offered missions trips.  The medical missions trip interested me because of my bucket list.  I asked Jeff if it was OK with him if I go.  In true, laid-back, easy-going, Jeff-style, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “it’s OK with me.”  16 years ago, my newlywed self may have misinterpreted that to mean that he wasn’t excited about it.  But the experienced Mrs. Wright knows that he is always really chill that way.

I am still troubled by my people burnout, and I wonder why it seems like it will be easier or more desirable to love and serve people in a foreign country, instead of the people I come in contact with every day.  But maybe I have to start somewhere.  So, if you see me and I’m grumpy with you, be patient with me.  I’m working on it.