Sailing4handicaps project Saint Lucia: work successfully concluded!

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It all started some years ago on a small lake in Cologne. I, Elena, an Italian professional high jumper who moved to Germany searching for a new training accommodation, was looking in the eyes of my, at that time, new boyfriend Wojtek Czyz, four times Paralympic Champion in track and field who was close to end his career after competing in the Paralympic Games in London. On the way to become a professional soccer player, during a match, he suffered a serious injury which leaded to the amputation of his leg. Thanks to his strength and to the support of many people around him, he made his way back to life and to sport, becoming the most successful Paralympic athlete in Germany, and still holding this record.
While sitting and watching the lake, Wojtek told me that his dream in life was to make a circumnavigation once he finished his sporting career and I immediately offered to go with him and share this dream. He couldn’t do anything else but laugh, since, till that moment, I had never been on a boat... but that was not all: Wojtek belived in me and we started to talk about not only sailing around the world, but also trying to help amputees who had been less fortunate than he had. After long talks we decided to set up a non-profit association called Sailing4handicaps, whose aim was to perform a circumnavigation on a sailing boat and build prosthetics on board, to donate to people in need all over the world. This is how the two of us started to travel around searching for the perfect boat, and this is how, after spending a cold winter visiting boats and thinking about the best one to perform our project on, we decided to buy "Imagine". She is a Lagoon 410 S2, a beautiful catamaran located in the Baltic Sea which was offering us great sailing capacity and a large cockpit where we could install our workshop. I maintained my word and after three years preparing the boat, promoting our project, getting all the sailing licenses necessary, sailing and training ourselves for the big trip, getting the last athletics successes and becoming husband and wife, on the 30th May 2015 we started our circumnavigation from Germany, bound for… the world.

Sailing4Handicaps :success in Saint Lucia

Elena and Wokjtek are sailing around the world to help others. What great motivation for setting off!

The first big appointment was in Morocco, where, at the end of October, we built up 15 prosthetics and reported a big success for sailing4handicaps. We then moved to the Canary Islands where we prepared to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Four years ago, when Wojtek and I were still athletes, I trained in Germany with Levern Spencer, the most successful high jumper from Saint Lucia. The friendship between the two of us and Levern's manager, Gregory Dixon, went on even when we choose different coaches and our ways separated.
Years after, planning our circumnavigation, the Caribbean "felt" on the way and we couldn't avoid asking our old friends if they thought that Saint Lucia might need our help. Not only did they give us a positive answer, but Gregory offered his help contacting the Ministry of Health and helping us scouting the future patients, and doing an amazing job.
On the morning of December 27th, after three weeks crossing the Atlantic Ocean, we reached the green coast of Saint Lucia pushed by a fair wind blowing in the sails of our catamaran "Imagine". We headed to Rodney Bay Marina, a fully equipped and friendly marina where sailors can find almost everything and, overall, a warm welcome after weeks on the sea.
Despite Saint Lucia being famous for tourists, and sailors and divers from all over the world finding an enchanting place to spend their best times, poverty and diabetes are affecting the much of the population resulting in a great number of amputees filling the streets and wandering without hope. A fire at the island’s main hospital, which occurred few years ago, and the consequent loss of the only prosthetics workshop they had, only helped to make the situation even more severe.

Sailing4Handicaps :success in Saint Lucia

The catamaran serves as a laboratory/workshop/storeroom for the Sail4Handicaps Association.

Just the time to recover from the travel and celebrate our first Caribbean New Year’s Day that we started the work driving up and down the island and seeking out the patients. When I say driving up and down I really mean it: Saint Lucia has only one main road and few secondary ones, but all of them hike and turn around several mountains making the drive (especially with such a small car like the one we rented) a real unique experience!
Supported by Gregory and the Ministry of Health we visited almost 20 amputees, some of them, unluckily, waiting for a second operation which made them unable to receive a prosthetic, at least for the moment. We drove in the deepest country, in small simple houses, in the forgotten corners of the main capital and we visited people with nothing but their beds and pots. We simply stopped people on the street asking them if they wanted a prosthetic for free, getting at first a skeptical glance in return, which immediately became one of hope, as soon as we explained them our project. Poverty was everywhere, but do you know what makes Saint Lucians so unique? Even in the worst moments they are able to smile and they always try to help each other. It looks like that the beauty of this island generates from its own inhabitants. Isn't this amazing!?!
After one month meeting amputees, collecting every kind of information possible, taking pictures and preparing, we finally could order all the materials needed and wait for our orthopedic technician to join us.

Sailing4Handicaps :success in Saint Lucia

Wojtek and Elena on board Imagine: enjoying their sailing as well as helping others! Good job!

For the so called "Project Saint Lucia", we put our trust in the expert hands of Herbert Ganter, Wojtek's historical orthopedic technician and father of Christhoph Ganter who made such an amazing job few months ago in Morocco. Flying from snowy Germany to the tropical Caribbean, Herbert, 68 years old but still with the strength of a teenager, left his business at home under the control of his son and dedicated two weeks to a complete new reality. From a safe and fully equipped workshop to a boat, from pleasant working conditions to a small sunny cockpit heated to 35 degrees, but a family environment, Ganter never gives up and Herbert adapted directly to the new situation using his best skills to build up prosthetics.
Our scouting work resulted in a list of 9 patients, all of them adults and most of them amputees as a consequence of diabetes. It shocked us to realize how much this illness is present on the Island, ranking Saint Lucia at the third place in the world list of countries affected by diabetes. A little research led us to discover that the reasons for this are to be found in the introduction of an American eating lifestyle, rich in sugar and fat. I mean, what else could you expect when you see locals taking breakfast with fried chicken and fries? Once again, western countries spoiling the lands they managed to conquer...

Sailing4Handicaps :success in Saint Lucia

The cockpit of the Lagoon 410 transformed into a workshop for fabricating prothetics.

Our patients came from all over the island: the youngest a lad of 25, the oldest a 73 old year man, probably fitter than the first one. Between them a young mother of two kids, rejected from every job because if her handicap, yet in need of work to feed her kids. A Rastafarian farmer unable to work since he lost his leg, but with the great respect and patience typical of his religion. A young fisherman with an old and stiff prosthetic (something our orthopedic technician had never seen, not even in his worst nightmares), but still trying to go and fish every day. A middle-aged woman, supported by the love of her husband and searching for work, and many others, everyone each with their own personal story, everyone a unique person.
Once the patients were found and the orthopedic technician was there, we could start to work. Keeping clear in mind all the difficulties we found in Morocco, we tried this time to plan everything in advance, but, as it always happens in these situations, nothing worked exactly as expected and we had once again to use a good dose of imagination to solve problems. First of all the island has no workshop, but with the help of the Health Ministry we could arrange to take the first measurements and the mold of the stumps in a Psychiatric Hospital which welcomed us with open arms. These were two funny days where we got to know the patients better and they tried to get over the fear of letting someone touch them, trusting us more and more. It is in these small moments, in these small things, when we are not anymore only “the Germans”, but we become a new hope to start a new life.
The subsequent work had been performed completely on board "Imagine". In Morocco we had the big fortune to do all the "dirty jobs" with Plaster of Paris (which we use to fill the mold to get a copy of the stamps) in a workshop ashore, but this time we really had to do everything in our cockpit, transforming "Imagine" from a great sailing catamaran to a messy workshop covered with white, sticky powder. But once again we had a proof of how much our Lagoon 410 can be strong and multi-purpose and we could work without any problem. I must also admit that the Rodney Bay Marina managers, enthusiastic of our project, supported us in the work offering us a comfortable berth for the boat, giving us a special price on electricity (which was enormous!) and in general generating a lot of publicity for sailing4handicaps.

Sailing4Handicaps :success in Saint Lucia

In Sainte Lucia, Wojtek and Elena have literally bought up all the plaster on the island for making their molds…

Settled down in the best conditions as possible to work, we thought everything would have finally been easy. But here came the first big problem, called plaster of Paris. Used to finding it in every shop in Europe and for little money, we never could think that on an island in the Caribbean this could have been such a difficult and expensive material to find. Wojtek drove up and down the whole island for three days, phoned all the shops around and bought all the plaster of Paris in stock in Saint Lucia, leaving behind him hungry clients deprived of it, and astonished sellers who never saw anyone buying such big quantities. I must say this was a really expensive action, if you consider that we paid more than $250 for 40kg. But at least we could work. Now try to imagine the scene: we were in a beautiful marina full of elegant sailors and we were walking up and down the dock all day covered in white powder and carrying strange copies of legs, working close to the trash, mixing up water and casts. "Imagine", elegant and shiny till the day before, transformed in a dirty and noisy workshop, like not even the best Transformers could do. Needless to say that we had the all eyes on us!
The news about the work spread out really fast, so much that every day the dock was full of curious people asking for information, but also of volunteers offering their help whenever we needed it. Saint Lucians have really a big heart!
Already running out of material to work with, we got a request from our "mama", our favorite fruit seller, to help her nephew, a 25 year-old formal soccer player who had been shot, and lost his leg few months before. With a heavy heart we were close to say we couldn't, when a couple working in the harbor and who knew her, offered their help to find more plaster of Paris. Not only did they manage to do it, but they drove 50km to pick it up and they refused to charge us for it, delivering it the following morning. Now the island really had no plaster of Paris left!!!

Sailing4Handicaps :success in Saint Lucia

Herbert Ganter did phenomal work in difficult conditions to design and fabricate the prosthetics in a catamaran cockpit…

Isn't this really unbelievable? People can simply have a good heart and act only to help others...this is still making us speechless!
This is how we got our tenth patient and this is how Herbert got even more work. It can sound strange, but to build up ten prosthetics in two weeks, fit them and teach the people to walk with them, is indeed a really short time. No matter what, our orthopedic technician took all of the patients in his heart and worked without stopping or any complaint, to end his job in the best ways possible. He started in the morning and worked till late at night without any break, not even for a short lunch in extremely warm working conditions and protected from the sun only from our bimini. A 68 year-old man strong as a lion. We are so proud of him!
Building, hammering, sanding, day after day the prosthetics took shape and the cockpit started to be full of legs.

Sailing4Handicaps :success in Saint Lucia

But a smile like this is recompense enough!

After preparing 3 or 4 prosthetics, we had to drive back to the hospital and fit them on the patients in order to try them and eventually apply small modifications. Luckily, almost everything fitted at the first try, even if a couple of prosthetics needed to be built up again, but this is part of the game. Fitting a prosthetic is such a magic moment: the patient is excited and some kind of afraid, and we are excited and hopeful that our work is fine and this mix makes the air electrifying! Every patient is a new story, everyone reacts differently. We met people who stood up and walked directly, others who were more cautious and others who tried to fill every detail of their new legs. Christina, mother of four kids and an amputee for years, couldn't stop shaking her head incredulously for this gift and to talk with her new leg as if it was alive. It was such a touching moment for all of us! Micky, a young guy, was sweating in fear, but then couldn't stop laughing once he stood up and moved the first steps.
Once the prosthetic was fitted, Wojtek, who has the best experience in it, taught the patients how to move the first steps with the new leg, how to climb the stairs, wear it and maintain it. This is usually the most difficult moment, overall for those who have been amputees for longer and are not using the muscles anymore. We must admit that this time we had ten incredible people, all of them able to walk directly, with some needing more support, the others less, but all making their steps back to life. Yes, because for an amputee in Saint Lucia, to get a prosthetic limb, means they can return to normal society, find work, earn money and be able to take care of their family.

Sailing4Handicaps :success in Saint Lucia

Once the new limb is made, it has to be adjusted then walking has to be re-learnt. And that’s not always that easy!

After two weeks we managed to build up all of the ten prosthetics, make every patient independent again and able to walk and, overall, to sensitize the government to the problem of amputees on the island, pushing them to move forward in the building of a new workshop and training of new orthopedic technicians.
Now it is time for us to move on in our travels, at least until the hurricane season starts and we will need to make a short stop. What will we bring in our hearts from Saint Lucia? Beside the beauty of the island and of the sea around it, we will never forget the smiles and the kindness of its inhabitants. We will remember forever the tears in the eyes of the young mother when she could walk again, the good soul and the respect of the Rastafarian who personally taught me to smile even through the pain, to be patient and to believe in the best. We will never forget the happiness of a woman walking her first steps slowly toward her husband, and his eyes full of pride. We will never forget how much these people have been thankful for the work of others, something, unluckily, we too often forget back in Europe. Every smile, every tear will stay in our hearts and made us richer than all the money of the world.

Sailing4Handicaps :success in Saint Lucia

Elena and a few of the prosthetics made on board Imagine.

We are now going to put "Imagine" on the hard in Martinique, waiting for the hurricane season to be over. She will undergo a complete check. The engines, the water maker and the generator are going to be serviced and we are planning to fix small details like changing the windows and so on.
We chose Martinique because the local marina is famous for taking good care of the boats during the summer season.
We are going to spend the summer around Europe, developing and promoting our project, collecting new material and pushing our adventure forward.
We plan to be back at the end of November in order to paint the new antifouling and get "Imagine" in the water, sailing then for Saint Vincent, where we have already agreed with the Health Minister to build prosthetics at the beginning of the New Year. We are already looking forward to smelling the salty air and feeling the wind in our sails.

If you want to follow us and support us with a small donation, check out our web site
or our Facebook page sailing4handicaps.

Sailing4Handicaps :success in Saint Lucia

Next stop for the catamaran: Saint Vincent!

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