Shipping help inside a tourist’s suitcase

Nohemi, a Honduran girl, received her wheelchair from an Ottawa couple whose 11-year-old daughter died after a life-long illness.

Nohemi, a Honduran girl, received her wheelchair from an Ottawa couple whose 11-year-old daughter died after a life-long illness.

When an Ottawa couple lost their 11-year-old daughter to a condition she’d had her whole life, they were understandably devastated. But it gave them some small solace — a bit of hope that her memory would be honoured — when they were able to donate the girl’s two wheelchairs to worthy recipients two worlds away.
The first went to Ghailan, a boy who lives in the north of war-ravaged Syria and has cerebral palsy. The other went to a Honduran girl named Nohemi. The donations were made possible by a small grassroots operation called Not Just Tourists – Ottawa, an organization we founded in 2005 that now sends thousands of kilograms of donated medical supplies and equipment each year to more than 70 countries.
For the past two years, a key focus has been on getting ocean containers of desperately needed supplies and equipment to refugees such as Ghailan, in and around Syria. Other countries receiving medical supplies and equipment through containers include Burundi, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Honduras. Not Just Tourists (NJT) also helps supply medical missions and tourists travelling to Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia.
It all started when we were planning a vacation to Cuba. We had been there years earlier and knew there was a great need for things such as Band-Aids and vitamins. We packed those supplies in our suitcase. In our research, we found a tiny Reader’s Digest article about a similar group and eventually got a phone number. When we learned they were in St. Catharines and we were in rural Quebec, we knew a group was needed in the Ottawa area. We then reached out to potential volunteers among friends and clients. Our first meeting was held in a small restaurant and included some nurses from the Ottawa Hospital Civic Campus.
We now have more than a dozen nurses and doctors who are active volunteers and advisers. We have specialists in palliative care, orthopedics, emergency medicine and family medicine, as well as one nursing instructor and a nurse practitioner. They tell us what supplies go together by use and purpose so we can put together effective collections of supplies.
The group’s “suitcase co-ordinator” is one of the original volunteers. Over the years, she has developed expertise in identifying the hundreds of types of medical supplies that come in, including wound supplies, burn treatment materials, specialty bandaging material, ostomy supplies, needles and syringes, creams and salves and IV management. She has made it her personal mission to ensure every suitcase has some analgesics and vitamins.
Initially, Not Just Tourists outfitted tourists with spare suitcases filled with donated medical supplies and over-the-counter medicines. Most countries will permit up to 20 kilograms of medical humanitarian aid within a visitor’s baggage limit. Cuba was the destination for most of these suitcases for the first few years. Then, as the group’s visibility increased, requests from other countries started to come in. Now, the medical community has become increasingly involved and donated supplies and equipment find their way to NJT volunteers’ basements, garages and spare bedrooms on a daily basis.
We receive supplies and equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars each year, including walkers, wheelchairs, hospital beds, instruments, manual and electric aspirators and respirators, nebulizers and batteries for medical equipment. You name it, it’s probably been given to us.
One valuable piece came from our dentist: a Panorex dental X-ray machine in perfect working condition. Worth thousands of dollars, the machine went to Syria by container in 2013. Meanwhile, a retiring doctor donated everything in his office, including a stainless-steel exam table. Another doctor offered the contents of her office, right down to the chairs. Everything went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Today, our wide network (see sidebar) also includes a growing number of retail stores that sell uniforms. Some invite their clients to donate their used scrubs in exchange for a discount on new purchases. To date, hundreds of gently used scrubs have found their way to medical personnel in several countries and some to nursing students here at home. Our P.E.I. volunteer has worked a number of miracles with equipment and supplies as well as free excess baggage allowances. It’s taken on a life of its own over the past couple of years as we reached a critical mass of people talking about us.
A key to the group’s ability to make a difference lies in the satellite groups and missions that actually rent and fill containers or arrange for group shipments.
NJT has partnered with a number of organisations to get supplies out in larger-scale quantities, including the Dave Smith Foundation, the Can Go-Afar Foundation (Ethiopia), Les Soeurs de Sainte-Marie de Namur (Dominican Republic), Pastors for Peace (Cuba), the Canada Africa Community Health Alliance (CACHA) (many African nations) and the Canadian Network for International Surgery (CNIS) (Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Guyana and Haiti); the Foundation for the Development of Orthopedics in Burundi. We’ve also helped the Honduran Embassy fill a container with hospital equipment and we respond to emergencies. Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, NJT quickly amassed hundreds of kilograms of supplies and medicine that were donated to the Dave Smith Foundation and shipped to Haiti.
Obviously, beyond the large-scale output, NJT relies on travellers of all kinds to deliver much-needed supplies and equipment to specific destinations: Cuba still gets the majority of tourist suitcases, but we were able to have a special wheelchair delivered to a severely disabled boy in rural Iraq; another one to an Iranian lady with multiple sclerosis; a special suitcase of medicines and supplies to Mother Teresa’s hospice in Kolkata, India; a pair of CPR training aids to a clinic in Chile; many suitcases of medicines and supplies to a Haitian orphanage through the Dominican Republic; several suitcases of medicines and supplies to a safehouse for abused girls in Southeast Asia; more to an orphanage in Nepal; and the list goes on.
People’s sometimes very deep personal losses are converted into major donations for NJT. We hear from people who’ve lost a husband, wife, father, mother, friend and sometimes, but rarely, a child. They want to honour their loved one and want, even need, to pass along useful medicines and supplies to spread good in their memory. We’ve had people tell us it brings them closure to know their donated supplies will help someone else.
Over the years, many people have wondered why NJT hasn’t grown into a registered charitable organisation so it can provide tax receipts for donations. The answer is simple: If NJT were to register, it would not be allowed to take in-kind donations from individuals or organisations. Groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross routinely refer people and groups to NJT with donations that, as registered charities, they cannot accept.
In short, we fulfil a role that a registered charity cannot undertake. The Red Cross, for example, cannot accept most used equipment from an individual. We can. No money changes hands and no receipt can be issued. For most people, it isn’t an issue. They just want to help make a difference.

Jacques Chenail is the volunteer co-ordinator of Not Just Tourists. His wife, Mary Metcalfe is a freelance book editor, novelist and founder of Not Just Tourists. Visit for more information.



We accept:
Unused wound care and other medical supplies;
Regular and prescription medicines, unopened and in original packaging;
Vitamins and mainstream health supplements;
Dental supplies;
Personal hygiene items (e.g. soap, Purel);
Braces, crutches, canes, walkers and wheelchairs;
Hospital beds, gurneys and
Incontinence and ostomy supplies;
Medical equipment and instruments.

We don’t accept:
Used sharps (syringes, needles, and IV pricks);
Waste of any kind (biomedical such as soiled bandages etc.);
Narcotics or restricted medicines;
Expired medicines beyond three months;
Household furnishings (beds, chairs);
Any non-medical item (e.g. books, shoes, clothes).


Thanks to a strong network of contacts and volunteers throughout Ontario, NJT – Ottawa is able to facilitate pickup and delivery from a long list of institutional and individual donors in many Ontario communities and even some in Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Quebec. Institutions and organisations donating to NJT include:

ALS Society
Appletree Medical Group
At-Home Hospice
Bayshore Health Group
Brant District Health Care System
Brockville General Hospital
Bruyère Continuing Care
Canadian Diabetes Association
Canadian Red Cross
Centre de formation professionnelle Vision-Avenir (QC)
Champlain CCAC (Community Care Access Centre)
Deep River and District Hospital
Digby General Hospital (NS)
FREEcycle Ottawa
Glengarry Memorial Hospital
Hospice Care Ottawa
Kemptville and District Hospital
Kingston General Hospital
MS Society of Canada
National Health & Safety
Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre
Queen Elizabeth Hospital (P.E.I.)
Queensway Carleton Hospital
Radford’s Outfitters
Scrubs for Them
Spotlite Inc.
Saint Elizabeth Health Care
Saint Mary’s University (N.S.)
St. Patrick’s Home
STRIDE Wheelchairs Plus
The Ottawa Hospital (University of Ottawa Eye Institute, Rehabilitation Centre)
PLUS individual physicians and nurses involved in palliative care as well as patients and their families. A growing number of long-term healthcare and retirement residences, both public and private, are joining in rescuing and repurposing valuable medical equipment and supplies as they are rotated out of inventory.

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Category: Diplomatica

About the Author ()

Jacques Chenail is the volunteer co-ordinator of Not Just Tourists. His wife, Mary Metcalfe is a freelance book editor, novelist and founder of Not Just Tourists. Visit for more information.

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