When Carmen Yirka from Powell River, British Columbia, first considered a job with Mercy Ships in 2009 she never imagined she would spend nearly eight years onboard the Africa Mercy.
Carmen asked the same question that most people ask when first considering Mercy Ships: “Do I need to be a doctor?” Carmen, who studied in culinary school, was visiting a nearby church and speaking with Carol, a representative of Mercy Ships. Carol answered with something Carmen hadn’t expected: “Mercy Ships needs cooks, too!”
That was it. Carmen applied shortly after, in May of 2009, and was on her way to live and work on a hospital ship in Africa a few months later. “I just knew that I wanted to change people’s worlds,” says Carmen.
Her family was nothing but supportive. Carmen’s mom, Brenda Yirka, said, “Carmen had been away from home a number of times for various volunteer roles…I was excited. She’s pretty confident and self-determined. It never surprised me.” Carmen started as a cook and worked her way up to Galley Team Lead, leading a group of likeminded volunteers as they prepared meals for all of the crew and patients on board the Africa Mercy. That could be up to 500 mouths to feed at any given time!
With a similar heart for service, along with a desire to see her daughter on a slightly more regular basis, in 2011, Brenda retired early from her teaching career in Canada to volunteer with Mercy Ships as a cook in the galley – reporting to her daughter, Carmen! She committed to serving for 3 months at a time, which became an annual thing. Brenda’s passion for teaching still shows up now and again: “You can sit at a table with three or four other nationalities and accents. We all speak so differently! I love interacting with the day crew and teaching them English while they teach me French.” Brenda also recognizes a different kind of connection with patients: “In the galley, you are serving the crew. You are bringing hope and healing to the patients through the other people – through the doctors and the nurses.”
Carmen agrees, as she talked about her own personal experience of hope and healing. Born with a genetic disorder known as Apert syndrome, an abnormal development of the skull, Carmen had overcome many physical and emotional struggles, growing up feeling different from others. That’s why she so clearly remembers a boy with Apert syndrome in Benin in 2009. “He had his first surgery at 7 years old, while I had my first surgery at 4 months old. By 7 years old, I’d had 25 surgeries. It made me feel so fortunate to be brought up in a country [like Canada] where I can have access to endless amounts of surgeries for free.” Two people from different continents with so much in common – it was truly remarkable, as was the boy’s recovery. Yet Carmen noticed some distinct differences, too.
“Many come to the ship as outcasts,” Carmen shares. “I have not been cast aside. I’ve been loved by my family and my friends and I’ve been happy to know what love is.”