Building a better future, one stove at a time
Morinville businessman helps those in need with the Flying Doctors of Canada
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Oct 09, 2013 06:00 am
Simon Boersma is a builder. The tall, square-jawed man is a common sight in Morinville and is well known around town as a successful businessman.
But few know the other Simon Boersma – the one who spends countless hours and dollars helping people overseas, dodges KGB agents in Europe, raises homes in South Africa and saves lives in El Salvador and Haiti.
Even fewer will know about the simple tool he uses to do much of this: a concrete stove.
It’s a table-sized device made from concrete and brick that costs about $50. With it, residents in El Salvador and Haiti can reduce air pollution, save time and money, and lower their risk of lung disease.
A stove might not be a big deal here in Canada, but it’s a game-changer in a place like El Salvador, Boersma explains. One mother he recently met figured out how to convert her stove into an oven, he notes, and her boys were ecstatic because now they would have bread every day since Mom didn’t have to walk 12 hours to reach the nearest bakery.
“It was just amazing,” he says. “We’re building hope.”
Adventures in charity
Boersma, 52, is involved with a number of charitable organizations, most of which work in Africa and Central America.
He says he got his philanthropic streak from his parents in Holland, who often hosted volunteers from overseas.
One of his first volunteer gigs as a young man was with a group that smuggled Bibles into the Soviet Union.
“We smuggled our product no different than how the drug smugglers do,” he says.
That meant night-time rendezvous, secret contacts, hidden compartments and bugged hotel rooms.
“We didn’t talk inside of the hotels,” he says. “We passed notes and we burned them.”
They also had to beware the KGB. There was one time at a border crossing when the guards detained him for 24 hours, suspecting he had something hidden in his 1970s Volkswagen bus. (He did: a book behind a cupboard.) As the guards searched, he went to buy some soup.
“As the food came, the AK-47 came up behind my back and (the guard) says ‘Get back in your truck right now!’” Boersma recalls.
He never did get to eat that soup, he says, but he did escape with the book.
Doctors on the wing
Nowadays, Boersma spends most of his time working with the Flying Doctors of Canada, a group he helped found in 2006.
Co-founder Benjamin Cavilla (Boersma’s brother-in-law) said he and a few medical students at the University of Alberta got the idea for the group while working in El Salvador in 2003.
El Salvador has decent emergency care, Cavilla says from his B.C. office, but no primary care. You’ll get a doctor if you’ve been shot, for example, but if you’ve got cataracts, cancer, or a cold, you’re out of luck unless you’ve got a lot of money.
The result is that most people try to tough it out until they’re almost dead before going to a hospital.
“You end up with a lot of people with chronic problems,” including rampant diabetes, burst tumours and emphysema, Cavilla says.
Cavilla and his doctors would hold clinics to treat these people, Boersma says, but found they were coming back year after year to the same problems.
The group formed the Flying Doctors to take a different approach. In addition to treating a person’s immediate health problems, they would also build infrastructure and train people to address the root causes of those problems: malnutrition, poor sanitation and pollution.
It’s no good to jet into an area, throw cash and medicine around and then leave, Boersma says.
“We have to be able to leave something behind.”
That’s why the group also emphasizes close co-operation with local doctors and leaders to give them the skills and tools they need to help.
The group currently operates in El Salvador and Haiti, making one trip to each nation a year. Each trip sees them bring about six doctors armed with medical supplies and equipment to a remote region for a free 10-day clinic – one that typically draws about 300 patients a day.
These spots are usually deep in the bush and hours away from the nearest city, with most people living in bamboo and banana-leaf homes with dirt floors, Boersma says. Some villages have running water. Few have electricity, although some have solar-powered satellite TV.
Residents will walk for up to seven hours to get to the clinic, Cavilla says – his team often has 100 clients waiting for them when they arrive on site.
The doctors usually set up the clinic in whatever permanent building is available. Equipped with portable X-ray, ultrasound, blood analysis and other medical devices, they can test for pretty much anything and perform limited surgeries.
Building a cure
There’s no point to doing all this work without follow-up, Cavilla says. The Flying Doctors work with local doctors and dentists to hand off patients to them and exchange expertise. They also leave thousands of dollars worth of medical supplies behind when the trip ends.
Student volunteers, such as U of A medical student Todd Radostits, help by teaching kids basic health practices such as tooth brushing.
“We had a puppet, a large alligator puppet that actually had dentures,” he says, and gave instructions in Spanish. (The puppet squirted water whenever the kids weren’t paying attention.)
Medical intervention only goes so far when it comes to meeting basic needs, Radostits says. That’s where education and infrastructure like the stoves comes in.
When The Flying Doctors started out, they immediately saw a lot of coughing, asthma and other lung problems in the places they visited, Boersma says.
The cause, they discovered, was how the locals cooked: they used open cook-fires in small, windowless huts. While the huts did shield the fires from the monsoon rains, they also trapped the cooks in with all the smoke. You could scrape a quarter-inch of soot off some of the roofs.
“This is where the mom and the child are seven to eight hours a day,” he says. “They’re breathing this stuff in.”
Boersma hit on the idea of locally made stoves as a solution. Made of brick and concrete, these stoves are made entirely by locals from local materials, meaning residents can keep using and making them even after the Flying Doctors depart. The group typically makes 50 a year.
The stove helps in many ways. It lifts the fire off the ground, so kids can’t be crushed or burned by a falling pot or log. The flue, made from concrete, vents smoke out of the cookhouse so people don’t choke on it.
Since it’s an enclosed fire, the stove concentrates heat, reducing the need for wood.
“Now we’re eco-friendly,” Boersma says. “They don’t have to go chopping every day.”
Students teach residents how to mix concrete and make bricks from local materials, Radostits says.
“It’s a sustainable project,” he says – even moreso since they gave the villagers in El Salvador a brick press this year. “It’s fun to give back and pass on a skill.”
Boersma believes the Flying Doctors are making a lasting difference on the ground.
“We have talked to people who have the stoves, and these women are breathing better.”
He recalls one woman in Nicaragua (where the Flying Doctors initially worked) who used to cough all the time before she got one of the stoves. “(Her husband) thought she was going to die,” he says. “Now, with the stove being there, she feels she’s got a new life.”
Boersma is now gearing up for his next trip to Haiti, and hopes to expand operations into Uganda in a few years.
“Once you start doing it, you can’t stop,” he says. “Money may feed you on a daily basis, but this feeds my soul.”
Visit flyingdoctors.ca for more information.