When a former cargo vessel was donated by Stoney Creek Shipping to YWAM (Youth With A Mission) Aotearoa in Tauranga in early 2019, the vision was clear – raise some funds, transform it into a medical aid ship, and set sail for remote Pacific Island villages.
But COVID-19 changed everything.
Two years on, the ship is all ready to go but boarders remain closed. Instead, YWAM Aotearoa is looking closer to home to empower a healthy future for the Pacific – motivated by the belief that everyone should have access to the basic necessities of life.
“Since lockdown, we’ve been reassessing our purpose,” explains YWAM Ships Aotearoa Managing Director Marty Emmett. “This ship’s not going anywhere in the Pacific in a hurry so what’s our New Zealand aspiration?
“We started thinking ‘well what have we got? Are there needs in our own community that we can begin to help with? Are there organisations that we can partner with to increase their capacity to deliver health and healing services to their communities? We’ve got a mobile dental container. What can we do with it? We could put it on a truck… we can go anywhere, so where should we go?
“It really was just a simple process of saying ‘what if we did exactly what we’re going to do in the Pacific, right here in the Bay of Plenty?’”. What we discovered from our due diligence is that there are substantial oral health needs in our communities, and not many providing a solution. The costs are prohibitive, and it doesn’t look like there is much help being offered any time soon.”
Koha Dental Clinic
In response to this community need, The Trinity Koha Dental Clinic was launched in June for an initial five week pilot programme. The M/V YWAM KOHA has unloaded one of its two mobile dental containers and taken it to Welcome Bay initially, followed by Te Puke and Kawerau. A second mobile clinic (fitted inside a caravan) is also on loan from a dentist in Whanganui.
“There’s a koha box when people step inside the clinic. If they want to give a koha they’ll give one, but there’s no expectation. The oral health services we’re providing are totally free.”
YWAM has linked up with local marae, health providers and kiwifruit orchards to host the mobile clinics and arrange appointments.
“The genius of all these clinics is we’re providing the service; they’re providing the patients. It’s a partnership in the spirit of kotahitanga which is one of our highest values at YWAM Ships Aotearoa. People are coming from Matakana and all around the Western Bay to Welcome Bay. And we understand people will be coming from all over the Eastern Bay to Kawerau.
The clinic has been made possible thanks to a $15,000 grant from BayTrust, along with substantial funding from TECT and multiple businesses such as Bay Gold, Southern Cross Horticulture, Sequal Lumber and Trinity Lands Ltd. Tauranga-based firm McLeod Cranes has offered to move the container around the Bay of Plenty free of charge.
“Our commitment at this stage is for the five week pilot programme. And then after that, we’re just going to reassess and see but I think the reality is we’re going to keep going. The only hindrance to us meeting the needs we have seen is our ability to recruit enough dental professionals to provide the services. There is still time for dentists or dental assistants to volunteer for this pilot programme, and we’d love to hear from willing volunteers,” Marty explains.
“One man had five teeth pulled out the other day at Welcome Bay – if he went to the dentist, he would be able to access $300 in emergency funding but that would have covered one fifth of his bill. How is he going to pay for the rest of it? There’s just no way.”
Emmett says YWAM Aotearoa is thrilled to have partners like BayTrust come on board to help fund this work and is blown away by the number of dental professionals who are willing to volunteer their time – including one dentist who has travelled from Whanganui to give his time free of charge for a month.
The other bonus of having funding approved is the organisation has been able to upgrade the equipment inside its dental container – which will benefit Pacific Island residents when the M/V YWAM KOHA can eventually set sail.
“When you go to the islands, you can take sterilisers that are older; they don't comply any more with the New Zealand standard but they’re fine to use. Because we’re doing this clinic here, we had to get one that is compliant with the latest regulations. So this funding has meant we could get a really good steriliser that we know will work for a really long time. So it’s been brilliant. It’s a win win for us – we’re providing these services, which is awesome but it’s also allowing us to really upgrade our container.”
When the impact of COVID-19 eventually fades away and borders open up again, YWAM Aotearoa will resume its work in the Pacific, deploying the YWAM KOHA to countries such as Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
“Most of the work we do is in the villages themselves. We anchor close to shore and can then provide primary health care, such as vaccinations, oral health checks, eye examinations and follow on surgeries if required. The Pacific Islands are the most geographically challenging islands on planet Earth. The vast majority have no airstrips and no bridges connecting them so the only way to reach them is via ship.”
The plan is to spend around seven months a year serving in the Pacific and then return to New Zealand. The M/V YWAM KOHA is currently berthed at Vessel Works beside Tauranga Harbour Bridge and more information is available at www.ywamshipsaotearoa.org.nz