In 2016, you could find Brittany Garrelts 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 the 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 hatched a plan. “We were going to just throw Thanksgiving, and we were going to invite the whole ship,” she said. They made posters. Decorated a table. Cooked some food. And the tradition stuck.
Brittany led the charge on an American Thanksgiving the next year 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.
Brittany originally signed on for nine months, but she stayed another nine months. Then another. When she talks to people back home, she said they often comment on what she’s sacrificed.
“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 nearing an end. Then she was approached about becoming the ward clinical supervisor on the newest and largest Mercy Ship – a hospital that would double the amount of patients receiving free surgery.
“That had to percolate,” she said.
Brittany’s parents visited the ship in Senegal around that time. Her dad, Jim, is also in healthcare. “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 stay – 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 her finishing touches in Antwerp, and she’ll soon set sail on her maiden 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.
“You never know when what you have to offer is exactly what we need,” she said. “Most people leave pretty darn glad they came.”
Ready to make your mark and bring both your personal and professional skills to serve onboard? Find your place onboard at https://www.mercyships.org/makeyourmark1/