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Local tourism group donates medical supplies to Ukraine

Unable to transport much needed medical supplies using a network known as Not Just Tourists, two Renfrew women worked with a former soldier to get the items to Ukraine.

If Ukrainian civilians wounded by barrage Russian artillery have been able to find a First Aid post and received medical care in the middle of a war zone, chances are some of the supplies used to treat them came from Renfrew.

It's thanks to a group of locals in and around Renfrew who were able to gather those supplies — because, as they said, they couldn't stand by and do nothing.

Local businesswoman Tanja Kisslinger, owner and operator of Heart In Hand, a company that fairly compensates women in third world countries for the handmade purses and clothing they make, established a Not Just For Tourists chapter (NJT) for Renfrew County as a means to ship medical supplies and other essentials to those most in need around the world.

Through her NJT connections, she and fellow NJT volunteer Laura Goodliff were able to secure several containers of medical supplies and monetary donations to send where they are most needed. Despite having some life-saving materials, the NJT network was unable to get them overseas.

“Not Just Tourists was founded with the purpose of getting medical supplies to those who can’t afford them,” Kisslinger said. “Ordinary tourists are given the means to change the lives of the locals they visit. Travellers carrying a suitcase are provided with a letter detailing exactly what's inside and advising customs officials that they're transporting the supplies to a particular medical facility.

“Not Just Tourists receives donations from Canada’s largest hospitals, clinics, medical suppliers and individuals. The supplies donated are typically gauze, bandages, surgical instruments, masks, gloves, antiseptics, IV kits, urinary supplies and birthing kits. Since COVID began two years ago, tourism took a big hit as people decided against, or some countries banned, international travel.”

She said the onslaught of COVID may have decreased overseas travel, but it did not deter local efforts to collect supplies.

She started a NJT chapter in Renfrew County, well aware that unlike large urban centres that could draw on large medical companies and practices for donations, the sparse population of a rural area would need to draw heavily on individual donations.

Over the last year, she and some members of the local NJT devoted countless hours contacting potential donors and organizations travelled throughout the area picking up the donations and transporting them back to Renfrew where they were stored free of charge at the Art Factory.

“Receiving both medical supplies and cash donations shows how much people really care,” she said. “Then we ran into the issue of a lack of tourist trips due to COVID and we realized we had to get these supplies to the people who really need them or we may have been forced to throw some of them away due to expiry dates.”

Kisslinger, along with her husband Patrick John Mills, owner of the Art Factory in Renfrew, share many qualities — among them, an honest belief in the power of positive thinking and that good things happen for a reason despite the odds.

In this case, good things came her way when she partnered with Horton resident Shawn Johnston, who was also gathering medical supplies  to send to Ukraine. Johnston, who was recently discharged from the Canadian Army after serving six years, drew on his contacts and experience to assist him in the delivery of supplies to the war-torn nation.

Working with the London Ukrainian Centre, the Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance to move the supplies, he was shocked when he arrived at the Art Factory to pick up the NJT supplies.

Johnston said no two donations are alike, but his usual pickup would involve the equivalent of a few containers. However, once he saw the number of bins, all labeled into categories and dates, he realized his pickup truck would be busy. By the time all the supplies were loaded, it worked out to a total of five full loads both in the cargo bed and back seat of the truck.

“Both Laura and I had been collecting the supplies for quite a while hoping the pandemic would ease up and that is when Laura came in contact with Shawn and the amazing work he is doing,” Kisslinger said. “Here was one individual with an idea of how he could help so many desperate people suffering every day in Ukraine. Shawn has been an absolute Godsend because we knew we were running out of time to get these supplies out the door.”

Johnston explained that once all the collections are completed, they will be sent overseas to the London Ukrainian Centre, and from there the items will be sent to Poland. There are several individuals and organizations that will cross the border into Ukraine and distribute the packages to various medical facilities and First Aid posts.

Once the last container was placed in Johnston’s truck, both Kisslinger and Goodliff, who served as lead medical advisers, were at times overwhelmed with emotion and had trouble expressing the enormous gratitude to Johnston and all those who donated towards the cause.

“This is an absolute expression of generosity that does not recognize borders or divisions,” Kisslinger said. “The generosity shown by the people of Renfrew and area will make a difference to the innocent people suffering in a terrible situation in Ukraine.”

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