Usually suitcases being brought on vacation are filled with clothes, toiletries and personal items, not brimming with medical supplies.
But volunteers with the non-profit Not Just Tourists are bringing a humanitarian edge to recreational travel by bringing medical supplies in their luggage to donate to those in need.
Avi D’Sousa, founder of the Toronto chapter of Not Just Tourists, showed CTV National News buckets of supplies, ready to be packed away into suitcases.
"Gauze and IV, needles, and airway breathing and, most of all, masks,” he said.
That’s some of what Sonya Deol will be taking with her to South Africa as a humanitarian medical gift.
“I often travel with a backpack, so my luggage allowance goes to waste,” Deol told CTV News. “And then one day I was doing some research and I found Not Just Tourists and I thought, what a perfect way to kind of provide a need, share resources, while also travelling.”
The supplies gathered by Not Just Tourists are mostly donated hospitals and home care facilities. The Toronto chapter has a partnership with the University Health Network, which donates supplies that are building up and are at risk of going to waste.
Travellers pick up a suitcase from the organization along with a form that is already filled out for customs.
The luggage is then dropped off at a specific hospital or clinic abroad. The medical facility that receives the donation is chosen ahead of time by Not Just Tourists to ensure the supplies go where they’re needed.
Eileen Hannon is taking a suitcase with her on a trip to Cuba, carrying out the request of a grieving mother, whose child recently died, to share medical supplies that she no longer has a need for.
“The mother called me and said ‘I got a lot of medical supplies at home, in my child’s memory I’d like them to go some place really special’,” Hannon said.
In Toronto, supplies are stored and sorted at the Roncesvalles United Church.
To date, nationally, some 7,000 suitcases have left Canada, totalling around 2.5 million pounds of donated supplies.
The program has been running in some form since 1990, when a couple from St. Catharines, Ont., Dr. Ken Taylor and his wife Denise, started bringing medical supplies to remote areas in Cuba after observing there was a shortage in certain supplies. When others who were travelling to Cuba started to approach them to ask if they could help carry supplies over, too, the organization took off.
Since then, the idea of using a vacation to help others has only spread further.
“We’re all over Canada now,” D’Souza said. “We’ve opened up a chapter in California, just opened up one in New York.”