Making the Holidays Bright on a Mercy Ship

In 2016, you could find Brittany Garrelts, from the United States, volunteering as a pediatric ward nurse aboard a floating hospital. She was in Benin, far from home, but she loved her unique life. She lived in a six-berth cabin, with roommates from all over the world who she called best friends.

As the holiday season approached, though, she realized she did miss one thing. Thanksgiving. She decided it was time to do something about it.

“Thanksgiving is about people,” she said. “It’s about getting together with your family, and I still want to do that here because I very much feel like this community is my family.”

She and a few fellow nurses decided to host Thanksgiving on board the ship. They made posters, decorated a table, cooked some food, and celebrated the tradition with their friends and fellow crew.

The following year, Brittany led the charge on an American Thanksgiving during her time in Guinea, and the year after that in Senegal.

“It was my little thing that I did for the community that I loved,” she said.

Originally, Brittany signed up to serve as a ward nurse for nine months, but after falling in love with the Mercy Ships community, she decided to serve for two more years. When she talks to people back home, she said they often comment on what she’s sacrificed.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s so amazing that you give up a salary’ or ‘it’s so amazing that you give up your home country,’” she said. “And I’ve never looked at the work that way. I look at all the things that I gain.”

Still, when Brittany reached her fourth year of service, she felt her time with Mercy Ships nearing an end.   But it was at that time that she was approached about becoming the ward clinical supervisor on the newest and largest Mercy Ship — the Global Mercy.

It was when Brittany’s parents were visiting her in Senegal that she shared her thoughts with them about continuing her service in this new supervisory role.

“There were some tears when I said, ‘I think I maybe want to go back,’” Brittany remembered. “It was hard for them at first, but my mom looked at my dad and she said, ‘Jim, how many times have you taken a job because you thought you could make a genuine difference if you did it?’”

Brittany was intensely familiar with that feeling of making a difference. It happened the first time she visited the operating room on the Africa Mercy. She watched an orthopedic surgery and thought, “I am literally a part of a miracle right now.”

Brittany later took care of the very patient she observed.

“To watch him stand for the first time and to hear his family’s story– what better use of my time than to serve in this place?” she said.

She decided to accept the offer — and help build the kind of community and traditions that made the Africa Mercy feel like home.

Brittany is now living aboard the Global Mercy at a historic moment in time. The ship is receiving some final additions, being stocked with supplies and equipment in Belgium, before setting sail on her first voyage to Africa. But first, the Global Mercy needs more volunteer crew members just like Brittany.

“There are so many roles, and you never know when what you have to offer is exactly what we need,” Brittany said. “I haven’t met a person … that regretted coming.”

To anyone thinking about volunteering during this historic time with Mercy Ships, Brittany said,

“go ahead and fill out the application.”

Ready to make your mark and bring both your personal and professional skills to serve onboard?
Find your place on board at mercyships.org/makeyourmark.