September 30, 2010 in Washington Voices

Street-corner donors feed volunteer’s dreams

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Fundraising in a flaccid economy is a challenge. Even established nonprofit organizations are struggling because people hold on to their change and cut back on charity as their paychecks shrink.

So when a young woman sets out to raise funds for a return trip to volunteer at a poor, rural hospital in the African nation of Chad, what is she to do?

Panhandle. At least that’s what Emily Star Wilkens did one day on the corner of Freya Street and Second Avenue in east Spokane.

“I always wanted to know what panhandling feels like,” Wilkens said, “and this was just one day. I got so many funny stories and people were asking me questions about Africa and wishing me good luck. Spokane is very generous.” Her sign read: “Going to Africa to volunteer at hospital. (4 months) Anything helps.”

After a few hours in the hot sun, Wilkens had collected $100.82 toward the $2,100 plane ticket.

Wilkens, who is 24 and lives on the South Hill, was nervous, but she said no one yelled at her or called her names.

“People were so nice. Some gave change, some gave a lot more, I was really touched,” Wilkens said.

It was through a missionary program at Walla Walla University that Wilkens first got to Chad in September last year. She was there through March, living with a local family and volunteering at the hospital.

“It’s a 75-bed hospital, and I was doing a lot of nurse work, like assisting at deliveries and changing dressings on broken bones and open wounds,” said Wilkens, who is a phlebotomist and planning to become a physician’s assistant.

“We’d see all sorts of things. And we didn’t have a lot of materials. Whatever we had was what was left over in the United States or stuff that no one else wanted to use.”

Wilkens lived with the 19-member family of a surgeon at the hospital.

“He started out as the maintenance man at the hospital and learned by watching and helping out during surgeries,” said Wilkens. “After 20 years, the hospital sent him off to nursing school. Now he’s a surgeon there. It is a very different environment. They set bones using power drills – they improvise all the time.”

Not to mention that the main language spoken is French.

“I didn’t speak any French when I got there, so that was hard,” said Wilkens, “but the family I lived with was a real strength for me.”

Among other fundraising activities, Wilkens designed and remade secondhand T-shirts, which she then sold online. She also had a blog and is publishing a book about her first trip to Chad this winter.

Missionary work in Africa runs in the family. Wilkens is related to longtime Rwanda volunteer Carl Wilkens, a Spokane native who’s given many talks about his time in Rwanda and about the genocide there.

There was never any doubt in Emily Wilkens’ mind that she wanted to return to Chad, and she already has a ticket to leave on Oct. 17. She’ll be gone for four months.

“My parents and both my brothers have done work in Africa, so no one thought it was odd that I wanted to do it, too,” Wilkens said. “I had a very real connection with the family I lived with. I know that me coming back will mean a lot to them, too.”

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