Beneath the umbrella-shaped canopy of the thorn tree, the young volunteer checked the Kenyan’s blood pressure.
Drew Comeau wrote down the woman’s chief medical complaints, took her vital signs, then sent her on her way to one of the physicians behind a makeshift examination room. For six hours, Comeau filed 100 people through the medical clinic hosted by Central Alberta-based A Better World, and Sailing Doctors, a Kenyan medical team serving small islands within the Lamu archipelago.
The 23-year-old aspiring physician from Red Deer was committed to doing humanitarian work. Even the risk of running into Somalian pirates on Kenya’s northern waters couldn’t stop him from being part of the volunteer medical team that day.
“A lot of people get caught up in the fact they don’t have certain skills — they’re not doctors, architects, engineers,” said Comeau. “Most kids are in that situation where they don’t have special skills, but they can still contribute in extremely meaningful ways.”
Comeau is among the under-30 generation who are participating in, and sometimes spearheading, humanitarian projects. A Better World, an international development organization currently serving in nine countries, is benefiting from this.
During A Better World’s 20th anniversary trip to Kenya in November, volunteers as young as 14 lent a hand.
Organization co-founder Eric Rajah believes it’s critical to get youth involved in humanitarian work, referring to a Globe and Mail article on Dec. 3 that said the average age of donors has risen to 53, leaving many Canadian charities wondering where their future dollars will come from.
“We need to develop our future philanthropists,” said Rajah.
Over the next several years, he will develop a youth division of high school and college/university students. This group, which may be called Tomorrow’s EDGE, will manage projects and take affordable trips geared specifically for them. They’ll focus on one village instead of moving around so relationships can be built.
Schools have taken a huge interest already in A Better World projects. In Alberta, 17 schools and post-secondary institutions have raised thousands of dollars for teacher training and school supplies. Some classes have chosen to go to Kenya and help the less fortunate instead of taking a spring break vacation.
Azalea Lehndorff, a biology graduate of Lacombe’s Canadian University College, is determined to build 100 classrooms in Afghanistan so that girls have an equal opportunity to attend school. The 23-year-old and a core committee of youth have raised about $100,000 so far. Nine schools across Canada, plus 29 schools within Regina’s Roman Catholic Separate School District, recently got on board with fundraisers as well.
Next spring, she’ll attend the grand openings of four classrooms at one school, plus 12 at another school within the wartorn, impoverished country.
“When you’re growing up, you’re not really sure what you want to do,” said Lehndorff, who left her New York home at 13 to pursue a better education. “This has given me a purpose and a passion and energy to move forward — it’s given me a true sense of happiness when you know you can fill a need for somebody else.”
Twenty-somethings Jennifer Van Caeseele, Rhianna Morin, Becky Novalkowski and 19-year-old Wendy Fisher, all of Grandview, Man., raised $1,680 from two garage sales, plus a few hundred dollars more in donations. The 800-some residents overwhelmingly got behind the young women as they headed off on their first-ever plane trip. School and sports supplies were bought in Kenya and presented at five schools by “the Manitoba girls.”
Fisher will never forget when students at one school cheered after hearing in their native language what gifts they were receiving.
“I think the neat thing too was at the high school in the village of Male, we went for lunch and came back and they already had their volleyball nets set up,” said Novalkowski.
Comeau knows how good it feels to help, too. He not only dispensed medications to some of Kenya’s poorest but he enjoyed a fun volleyball match with teenagers with mental disabilities.
“I think the message we brought to the African people was that we care — and that we’re willing to listen.”
He will return to Kenya in January on a medical mission with his parents, Ray and Deryl, both of whom have volunteered with A Better World and Medical Mercy Canada, a group providing unconditional medical aid in several impoverished countries.
Shayna Northey, 16, and her 14-year-old sister Heather have been inspired by their parents, too, who took them on their first trip to Kenya last year along with their 17-year-old sister Lynnaea, now attending Red Deer College.
“We were going to be donors for a project and then Eric (Rajah) encouraged me to take my family,” said Bob Northey. “In his words, you have an opportunity to change their lives forever.”
In November, the two teens volunteered alongside their mother Sandra at the St. Anne’s orphanage, where they helped fit 20 children with new shoes, plus gathered information on their schooling to give to sponsors.
They raised money for the Irbaan School shoe project in the Maasi Mara, a collaborative project involving the Northeys, Chuck and Donna Roberts of Red Deer, and Red Deer artist Shauna Dunbar, who created the In My Shoes painting.
Shayna further provided crowd control and gave out pills at two medical clinics while Heather helped out at an eyeglass clinic, acting as pointer for the long-distance vision chart.
Both say their experiences in Kenya have changed them for the better, including a deeper appreciation of what they have in Canada.
In January, Heather will begin sponsoring a three-year-old orphan for $350 a year so he can go to school. The rest of her family sponsors children as well.
“When we go to these schools, I think it’s nice for the children to see someone closer to their age,” added Shayna. “They feel a little closer that way.”
Without hesitation, Shayna said she will do humanitarian work throughout her life.
That’s the answer Rajah wants to hear.
“The sooner we can get them involved and engaged, the sooner we can see the results. To see young people involved also gives me hope that a better world is possible.”