“We have skill sets that are useful, and we understand North American donors, but it is the local people who have the knowledge. We have to listen to them. We have to get to know another culture.”
They had been thinking about doing humanitarian work for a long time. In fact, before their careers in management and nursing (respectively), even before their wedding “a long time ago,” Harry and Annie Bergshoeff of Mississauga knew that someday, somehow, they would be giving back.
So when they heard about an opportunity to volunteer abroad as they were heading towards retirement, it seemed like the obvious next step.
In 2012, the Bergshoeffs headed to Kenya with World Renew – the international development agency of the Christian Reformed Church, and member of Canadian Foodgrains Bank—to help with food distribution and other humanitarian assistance during a drought.
Their years of experience in management, logistics and service make the Bergshoeffs an ideal fit for the International Relief Manager (IRM) program, an initiative that trains and sends highly-skilled Canadian volunteers into situations of humanitarian need where their expertise can contribute meaningfully to the response.
As Harry notes, it’s not always an easy transition. “We have skill sets that are useful, and we understand North American donors, but it is the local people who have the knowledge. We have to listen to them. We have to get to know another culture.”
Leaving their comfortable lifestyle and landing in the midst of a humanitarian disaster is another adjustment. “It was a shock to come face to face with people who are hungry,” says Annie of their first mission in Kenya. “But I was always impressed by their strength of character, their resilience.”
Harry muses that coming home is even more difficult. “It takes us about a month to get settled again when we come back. We look at our malls, our homes, our opulence and we ask, How can we justify this?,” he says. His unease feeds his resolve.
“We have it so good as Canadians. We are blessed with peace, health care, and a geography that is largely free of natural disasters. It is incumbent on us to do what we can,” he says.
Their sense of mission, according to Annie, is deeply rooted in their faith. “We are called to serve,” she says. “We see the needs that exist and we are driven to help in the fight against injustice and poverty.”
And by all accounts, their efforts really have made a difference. They have distributed bags of food and emergency supplies to families who have lost everything. They have coordinated the work of several agencies responding to needs in the same community. And most importantly, they have worked alongside local people so the community can carry on. “We just try to work ourselves out of a job,” says Annie.
At this point, there is still work left to do. Harry and Annie have completed 11 missions so far, in countries such as Kenya, the Philippines, Indonesia and Uganda. In September, they will return to Bangladesh to work with Rohingya refugees for the third time.
And with a love of adventure, compassion for people, and a deep sense of calling, it is clear that the Bergshoeffs have every intention to keep on going and to keep on giving.
You can follow Harry and Annie’s humanitarian missions on their blog: www.thebergshoeffs.org.
Canadian Foodgrains Bank is a member of the Humanitarian Coalition.