Telling the Stories of Mercy Ships
Diane Rickard first joined Mercy Ships in 1982 doing public relations for the organization. Now, with a Mercy Ships history that spans 40 years, Diane says there has always been a strong sense of purpose and never a dull moment! Why stick around for 40 years? From day one, Diane recalls, “The commitment, the vision, the uniqueness and the opportunity just all struck me — that it was something I was born for.”
Currently serving as the International Media Relations Manager, Diane helps share the stories of crew and patients on board — stories that build pathways for people to be inspired and get involved.
In this episode, Diane shares about the early days of Mercy Ships and her involvement. She tells about working with media teams on board, patient stories that have stuck with her, and the rewards that have come from telling the stories of lives that have been transformed.
New Mercies Podcast Transcript
Welcome to the New Mercies, a podcast by Mercy Ships, where we’ll take you behind the scenes and on board our incredible hospital ships that are transforming lives all over the world. We invite you to join us each week as we sit down with our crew, patients, volunteers, and partners to hear their stories of life-changing hope and healing.
Diane Rickard first joined Mercy Ships in 1982, doing public relations for the organization. Now with a Mercy Ships history that spans 40 years, Diane says there has never been a dull moment and there has always been a sense of purpose. Get ready to be inspired by this faithful woman. Here’s my interview with Diane Rickard.
Well, I had many people tell me, Raeanne, you have to interview Diane, she has so much knowledge about the organization having served for over 40 years! We just celebrated our 45th anniversary with Mercy Ships, so I understand you’ve been around for almost all those years. And I am thrilled to get to speak with you today. So Diane, welcome to New Mercies.
Thank you, Raeanne. It’s a pleasure.
Well, great. So Diane, why don’t you tell us, how did this whole adventure begin for you? Because 40 years is quite some time to be serving with an organization, how did that begin?
I grew up as a church kid, I became a high school English and art teacher in Minneapolis in the late 70s. But I always, even from my earliest days, I had a cross cultural interest. I took five years of Spanish in four, because I just loved being able to understand another culture. I was friends with the only people from another culture in my small town in Iowa in the school, I just gravitated to people of other cultures.
When I was teaching, I had several experiences that showed me that I was not exactly where I wanted to be with the Lord, I really was a cultural Christian. I wasn’t seeing the power in my life to see lasting change in other people’s lives. And one day, I was reading in Hebrews, and a passage as it does, just jumped out at me. It was Hebrews 5:12. And it said, although by this time, you ought to be teachers, you have need of someone else to reteach you the basic principles of the Word of God, and you need milk and not meat. And it just so hit me that I couldn’t teach what I didn’t have.
And even though I was a teacher, I needed to go back and relearn some of the basic principles of God’s Word to be able to share more concretely with others. And that led me to some people who were headed down to a missions training program in Texas. And I did that training program, which was the parent organization where Mercy Ships was born out of, I just had never taken that kind of time to think about where I was at with the Lord. And it just really helped to reground me, I loved it. And I went on staff with them. And during that, that first early time working with them, Don Stephens came through the ranch. It was a ranch in Texas, and he was riding a horse. He came and He tied up outside of our communications office, Don was looking for people to join the advanced group for the Anastasis maiden voyage to Los Angeles in the summer of 1982. And so he was on the hunt and sat on my desk and asked me what I was doing for the summer. And I said we have to ask my boss, and I wound up going to Los Angeles. And I had the privilege of working with Larry Ross, who is a PR guy who was representing Billy Graham until he passed away. And so that started me as a former English teacher, on my journey, doing PR with Mercy Ships, and I have really been in that arena more or less ever since.
Are you living onboard the Anastasis at this time and working?
We first lived in a little office in the Port of San Pedro. And then when the Anastasis came in, then we had the opportunity to live on board so it was my first time going up the gangway every day, and I just fell in love with the community, what we were about to do, it was the maiden voyage. So we hadn’t really done the work. But the commitment, the vision, the uniqueness, and the opportunity, just all struck me that it was something I was born for. I just needed to stay involved. So I wound up staying.
So you were on board the Anastasis, when did you guys leave Los Angeles? And where did you go?
Well, to be honest, the ship left Los Angeles in 83, and went down to Guatemala and then over to the South Pacific. Don had asked me if I would continue on in the PR role and I said, I had to pray about it, and I got some very clear guidance. I had a previous commitment that I needed to fulfill, I wasn’t really free to go until I had completed that commitment. And I really wanted to ditch that commitment, because I would think this is never going to come around again, you know? But I remember clearly saying to Don, I feel like I need to say No, not right now to this job role that I feel like I’ve been trained for, I’ve just had an incredible opportunity to do.
So I wound up going back to Texas, finishing out my commitments there, to the team that was there. And hoping that I would be asked again to come. I remember being in Texas, Don came by for a big conference. And I thought he was going to ask me, and it didn’t happen. I cried my eyes out over the lake. There in Texas, thinking, you know, it’s okay, God, I will do what you want me to do. You know, wherever you put me, that’s where I’m going to serve. And the next morning, I got a tap on the shoulder. I was there early and it was Don. He hadn’t actually left yet. In fact, he’d started leaving and remembered he had a couple of things he’d left at someone’s house. And he had to ask me, would you come back? So of course, I said, Yes. And so that was that was my return to the Anastasis in Hawaii. When the ship came into the Big Island, and I was on that advanced team. And so from that point in time, I continued to serve. The ship was stopped for a period of time, almost a year for sprinkler repairs and so I wound up going back to the Los Angeles office back in San Pedro, California, and meeting my husband, which, you know, was another God’s stories.
Another gift that came out of Mercy Ships for you. You know, I love that part of your testimony of obedience to finishing out an obligation that you already had, but also taking the risk of — if I let go of this opportunity with Mercy Ships, it might not come again. But I love your courage, and your commitment to follow through with what you had started somewhere else. And then to watch God reward your faithfulness. And that is really a beautiful thing. And it’s really encouraging because I think a lot of people today, we fear, I’m not going to get this opportunity again, it doesn’t matter what bridges I burn, it doesn’t matter what I leave undone, I have to go for it. But man to be so committed to what you had already started is just really a testament to your character. And really, I love how God was faithful through that for you. So you continued to serve and what was going on in the Anastasis. In those early days I’m hearing, you know, Guatemala, Hawaii, much different than it looks like today, where we’re in African nations. But what was going on in the early days?
Don had a very clear vision, but it took time for that to mature. And I think it was in those years, in the in the 80s and those early 90s, where the platform of service became developed and moved from relief and development to clear medical and surgical services.
So Don married us actually. It was 1984 and I was single, serving with the Anastasis and I came to the port office and met my husband that year. So Don married us at the end of that year, he was on the way to Greece, where Alan Williams, the ship’s chaplain and a Greek youth leader were on trial for giving a Greek teenager a Bible. And the Anastasis, you know, when it was undergoing its first conversion, it spent some time in Greece, the teenager had become friends with the ship families. And he’d asked for a Bible and been given one. So it was a, it was a very unique time, while the ship was laid up in Hawaii, getting fully refitted with a new sprinkler system, that that was all happening. So we came back to the ship in Canada, near the Victoria, Vancouver area.
Once that refit was all finished, my husband and I began the first cross cultural training program on board the Anastasis that was headed down to Mexico, following an earthquake that had happened and Lazaro Cardenas on the coast. And we felt it was so important to honor and to listen to the cultures that we came to serve and learn how to speak the language of the people. I spoke Spanish, so we worked with many of the teams to just be able to honor the culture that we were coming into and meet them where they were. And then after a couple of years, we were asked to take over the leadership of the Good Samaritan, which was on the other coast. It was on the coast of Florida. And the Good Samaritan was a Canadian ferry and it had been donated just a couple of years prior to provide some relief operations in the Caribbean all the way down. And w took it all the way down to the Amazon. So we had a little crew of 60. So much smaller than the Anastasis, which, you know, crewed, several 100. And we sailed all around the islands of the Caribbean and Central America, we called her our Little Giant.
We supported the long-term work of partners that were in the smaller ports that we could get into, that the Anastasis maybe couldn’t. And we had health education, we had dental work, we did have many teams that shared in churches. Later that ship even sailed to the south just about sail to Africa for a short time and it sailed to the South Pacific and was rechristened as the Island Mercy. And they added eye surgeries to its offering and so it had years more of service before it had to be retired. But yeah, through all that time, you know, we were raising our own financial support, like all the crew still does on the Africa Mercy and the Global Mercy. I just never cease to be amazed that even though our basic needs were taken care of, you know, we knew we were not going to go hungry, we were not living homeless, we were not the missionary homeless.
But I do remember one time being down to our last $50 for the month. And my husband felt like we should give it in the offering plate. I was on a trip. And I happened to speak the next day in a church service as a thank you I was given this beautiful, huge gourd and some gorgeous local cloth. I just thought you know, it’s true, you cannot outgive God.
That is so true. Wow. You know, it’s incredible to get to hear just some of the stories of the early days. And if I’m not mistaken, I’m hearing that the Anastasis and the Good Samaritan were in operation at the same time. Is that correct?
Yes, they were. Yes, they were.
So I know, a lot of people, including myself think that this is maybe the first time in Mercy Ships history that we’ve had two ships in operation at the same time, the Africa Mercy and the Global Mercy, but it’s not. This is something that happened in the beginning, which is really exciting to know. And I’m kind of getting ahead of myself here a little bit, but I just have to ask, having watched this evolution over the last 40 plus years, 41 years, did you ever imagine back on the Anastasis or back on the Good Samaritan, that we would be where we are today with Mercy Ships?
You know, I don’t think so. I think we were taking it a day and a weekend a month at a time. But our personal history is so wrapped up with Mercy Ships that I will say we had a little boy who was born, this is before we came back to Mercy Ships. We had a period of time we were out of Mercy Ships for a short time working with the parent organization in some projects. And we had a son, our second son was born with trisomy 13. And he passed away when he was three and a half. And after his birth, we were told in the hospital that his condition was not compatible with life. So through that three and a half years he was often in hospital, he had cleft lip surgery, bronchial itis to heart surgeries, cataract surgery, so many different illnesses — it was a really difficult season, and we took a timeout from missions. But, you know, all that time, even in the hospital, we were recruiters for Mercy Ships.
You know, you never know where something is going to take you, you looking back, you wonder how did how did I spend 40 years doing this? But yet, it is never been boring, because there has always been a sense of purpose to what we’ve been doing. And, you know, even though we took time out, we took a couple of years out from mission service at that point. And the day after his memorial service, I ran into Don, who was touring the abbey of St. Albans after board meetings here in England. And Don invited my husband and myself to return to Mercy Ships when we were ready, you know, he knew it was too soon. But Mercy Ships had always been family to us. Some of our core friendships — you know why stay so long? We have had core, committed friendships and relationships throughout the entire time. Why most are hugely precious, you know, family is family and friends are family you choose but we we feel like family and there’s a you know, there’s a DNA that comes when you’ve been serving together.
Would we have predicted that that we would be doing all the things that we’re doing now? Yes, in some ways, because I think we’re getting clearer and clearer in the vision and the direction. Yeah, safe surgery. My little boy was offered cleft lip surgery when he was only a week old. Yeah, that does not happen most places in the world, we were part of a kind of an exploratory surgery to find out children getting a cleft lip surgery when they were so young, how would it impact? So we were part of a study, actually, that was being done here in England at the time. But we didn’t have any sense that we shouldn’t do that, you know, it was offered, it was offered to us. And I think it’s always been such a privilege to know that we can offer that same experience to people who have really no other hope of being able to address the situations that have come upon them, not their fault.
Absolutely. It’s really unique that you experience some of these surgeries, cleft lip and cataract surgery with your son at such a young age. And those are a lot of the surgeries that we still do on board our ships, cleft lip and palate repair and cataract surgery. It’s amazing, that’s had a personal touch in your heart. You know, not many of our crew can say that. But I’m sure that that gives you, as you’ve mentioned, just a new perspective on how great the need is. You had access to the surgeries and to the medical care that your son needed, and how many people all over the world do not have that same privilege. It’s incredible that you have that connection personally, also, professionally with Mercy Ships.
Yeah, so I remember sitting with a family in Sierra Leone, it’s gotta be, I don’t know, 2010, 2011 we were going to feature the family in a media piece, but I was trying to get to know the family first. And their child was going in for surgery, you know, there’s always the fear that they’ll walk on board and they’ll never come off alive. It’s surgery and just such an unknown. Even I experienced that, you know, we have infinite trust sometimes of medical professionals and yet, it’s never a given — my son went through two heart surgeries because the first one failed. And we had to make the agonizing decision of should we put him through another one. And I just remember sharing with the mom how my son had gone through this, you know, through surgery, and had come out the other side, even though he didn’t have a long life, but he lived through the surgery. I just felt such an incredible bonding with this particular mom, whose child was going in for the same surgeries that my son had.
What a unique opportunity to get to relate to her in that beautiful way. Diane, tell us, what are you doing now with Mercy Ships?
Well, my role is called International Media Relations Manager. I liaise with our 16 national offices and their media visits to the ships. So we often have news media that wants to tell our story. We might have documentary teams that want to apply for an opportunity to make a documentary piece about us. And I work with them to create their pitches and to help solidify which ones we’re going to choose. And which ones we think we can accommodate. I write a lot of press releases, I’m in touch with quite a lot of media around the world as kind of a first point of contact, basically work to help them be able to get a lot of the resources that we create. We have an incredible volunteer team of communication teams on board, taking beautiful photos, and excellent video, we have so many wonderful resources. And so my job is to try to help link those resources to some of the media outlets that want to tell our story.
Why is it important that we have a media presence?
You know, I can’t tell you the number of times people have said, I heard about Mercy Ships first in a magazine in my break room, or in my local paper, or I saw it on a documentary. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was in church, and an 80 year old lady came up to me and said, I want to give you this 20 pounds. Please don’t put my name on a mailing list. But I want to stay anonymous. But I saw Mercy Ships on a documentary and it was one that we had made 15 years ago that’s still airing and I just felt like I had to give, and I knew I could give it to you so you could take it in. So stories build pathways for people to become involved. And I think that’s my interest in storytelling. When we hear someone’s story, we’re inspired to take a leap of faith. And over the years, it’s especially been a privilege, I think, for me to see, quite a number of our patients grow up and have lives of their own.
You know, we’re headed to Sierra Leone and we have a patient named Hawa, who was four or five, she had a tumor in her mouth. And her papa brought her onboard. And I remember being there when she was on board, because we had a documentary team that captured part of her story. And after her successful surgery, of course, the ship left Sierra Leone, we would have not had contact. But we did have one of the Mercy Ships kids who had become a doctor and I was living in Sierra Leone. And so she kept in touch with the family, the father passed away and how she had to go into an orphanage care. One of the Mercy Ships volunteers sponsored her and helped to cover a lot of her costs and educational costs. And over the years, she has grown into a beautiful young woman, we recently just did an interview with her that will be coming out in social media, in probably in another month or so. And it is all about her story from her perspective, and how she is studying now to be a nurse. Before her dad passed away, he said you need to become a nurse. And she really wanted to fulfill that wish herself not just because of her father, but because of her own personal experience. The results of the life not just life changing, but life-giving lifesaving surgery that she had. It’s amazing to see those kinds of stories happen. And such an incredible privilege to get to follow some of these patients years beyond their surgery to see what life is like for them. And how amazing that this young woman now is pursuing becoming a nurse. It’s just incredible.
I think it’s important that we do document these, these moments, for nothing less than it is just giving complete glory to God, that we are saying, Lord, these people matter and we want to write their story. We want to have their story out there to give glory to God.
It’s beautiful. Well, I know that over the past 40 odd years that you have been serving with Mercy Ships, you have several highlights. I know you’ve already shared a couple of them with us, but is there maybe a standout moment or if you have coffee with a girlfriend and you know you have just a moment to share your most impactful moment over the past 40 years. What would that be?
I think the impact for me is not a moment. It’s the accumulation and the depth of the growth that I’ve experienced. From that moment, when I realized back when I was a high school teacher that you’ve been a cultural Christian, but you haven’t experienced the power to see lives changed. And the experiences that Mercy Ships has given me. They’ve tested that in so many ways, and stretched me in so many ways that I don’t think I would have been stretched, had I not just taken that leap. And it’s the accumulated impact more than anything.
If you want to talk professionally in terms of my job and the role that I’ve played, a couple of my most fascinating opportunities have been hosting the CBS 60 Minutes team onboard the Africa Mercy.
That was back in, I think around 2012, it was an incredible opportunity to work with what is considered often an investigative news team who took such care with us to validate our integrity, they spent six months researching us that left no leaf unturned.
I spent nine months before, during and after, and hosted them on board. And I’m still in touch with producers on a personal basis, they had an incredible way of making us feel like family after doing a story on us. And as a result of watching that program, an investor from California gave a $20 million pledge and kick started the Global Mercy capital campaign in which the boards of Mercy Ships were able to say with this seed money, we know we can start building the Global Mercy.
And another donor from Cincinnati also gave several times more after watching that particular program. And to see the Global Mercy paid off before it sailed into service. It’s not a personal victory, because I didn’t raise that money. But you just know that you are a link in a chain. And it’s a chain that is continuing because you just did your part. And so you know, it’s those kinds of things that just don’t leave you and when a day is hard as sometimes, I’m at my wit’s end thinking maybe I should quit. I don’t know how to quit. And that’s the problem. So I will have to ease off slowly. But I think I should always be a volunteer with Mercy Ships.
I asked earlier, why is it important that we have immediate presence? But I think, how can people give if they don’t know about the Mission of Mercy Ships? And how can they know about the Mission of Mercy Ships if we don’t tell them. And so it’s such a beautiful job that you have working with that 60 minutes crew, or all the many media crews that you’ve worked with over the years to help get the story out about the Mission of Mercy Ships so that people can get involved in any way they can give financially, they can go volunteer on board, and they can pray for us and pray for those patients, pray for our crew. So what you do is so valuable and so important. And we’re grateful. We’re grateful for you, Diane, thank you. Thank you for what you do. And thank you so much for sharing with us today just a little bit about your Mercy Ships journey.
Thank you, Raeanne. It’s a privilege. I love doing what I’m doing. And I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to do it. And I encourage anybody listening, that if they have a desire to serve at some point to do it, they can now it’s not always easy to find a place on board. There’s only so many places available, but there’s always something you can do. You know, recently, the father of one of our Mercy Ships nurses took his free bus pass and at the age of 70, he spent nearly over a month traveling on his free bus pass to raise support, interest, money and awareness of Mercy Ships on his free bus visits around England. So there’s always something that you can do. And I think it’s just finding the creative option. Once a Mercy Shipper, always a Mercy Shipper.