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Jack Knox: Bridal gowns to Jordan, from loads of volunteers providing light to darkness

Five wedding dresses. Among all the donated items being crammed into the 40-foot shipping container — school supplies, stethoscopes, winter boots, sewing machines — the dresses stand out.
Dell Marie Wergeland with volunteers from the Compassionate Resource Warehouse, who load a shipping container with goods bound for a refugee camp in Jordan.

Five wedding dresses. Among all the donated items being crammed into the 40-foot shipping container — school supplies, stethoscopes, winter boots, sewing machines — the dresses stand out.

Why on earth would a Syrian refugee in Jordan need a wedding gown from Victoria?

Because even refugee brides have dreams.

“They get to feel special for one day,” says Dr. Bridget Stirling. They get to shine in the darkness. Then they return the garments to what is effectively a lending library — with more brides than dresses, the women in the refugee camps need to share.

Stirling, a Victoria epidemiologist, is standing on the loading dock of what used to be Babe’s Honey Farm in Central Saanich. The sprawling building is one of two — the other is in Esquimalt — where Compassionate Resource Warehouse volunteers sort donated items for shipment overseas.

Stirling can’t hide her delight as the container fills. It’s bound for Jordan, where the charity she works with — another Victoria-based humanitarian-aid outfit — runs clinics and other services for the masses of displaced Syrians and Iraqis stranded in poverty there.

Here on our Island paradise, it’s hard to imagine how much good this shipment will do, Stirling says. Look at what happened last year, when excess soap from Victoria hotels saved children from a cholera outbreak in Lebanon. “Soap is life. If you can get soap into the hands of people, that’s going to make the difference between kids getting sick or not. Soap is like gold.”

Then there are the bikes, blankets, books, boots, even a barber chair. The list goes on.

And that’s just what’s going into this container — the 500th filled by the Compassionate Resource Warehouse in the past 20 years.

This is a little-known (or at least less known than it should be) Victoria success story. Now a stand-alone charity, the Compassionate Resource Warehouse grew out of the Church of the Nazarene in 1999. Since sending its first container to hurricane-ravaged Honduras in 2000, it has packed 499 more with donated goods for schools, hospitals, job-training programs and the like in 66 other countries.

It relies wholly on donations, everything from linen passed along by hospitals to 3,500 pencils collected by a single schoolgirl. It also relies on the volunteers who work out of its two locations. Nobody gets paid.

Many of the volunteers are well-travelled, skilled, good-hearted retirees who are aware of how much need there is in the world. “You have so many people with so much expertise in so many areas,” says Dell Marie Wergeland, who drives this effort.

There are lots of former teachers in the Devonshire Road location in Esquimalt, where the educational materials get sorted, and lots of former nurses in the Central Saanich site, where medical supplies are curated. The Jordan-bound container was loaded at both sites this week.

On this day, the Central Saanich building looks like Santa’s workshop, or perhaps what Santa’s workshop would look life if most of the elves were old enough to remember when Lester Pearson was prime minister.

There’s a room where former (and some current) hospital nurses sort medical supplies — gauze, catheters, intravenous sets, surgical gowns and a gazillion other bits — deemed surplus by Island Health. When operating rooms get new drapes, the old ones get recycled here. Walking casts line up as though on parade. A prosthetic leg lies on a bench.

Around the corner, volunteers are sorting bedding and clothing. There’s even a section for fancy garments, including suits and ties that the recipients will need if they want to get and keep office jobs. (Some come with sewing kits, just in case alterations are needed.)

Another room is crammed with bigger bits: examination tables donated by a retiring doctor, a stack of chairs from a church, the tools from S.J. Willis School’s woodshop. They even salvaged the stainless steel sinks when the old North Saanich Middle School was torn down.

Next is a chamber piled high with tools. Power tools are tricky. Most of the countries they ship to use 230 volts, so shipments need to include transformers. Hand tools are popular in places where the electrical system is dodgy.

The guys who volunteer in this room like to assemble toolkits so well-stocked that individual recipients should be able to equip themselves for a job just by picking one up and walking away. A pallet destined for Malawi this week includes everything from handsaws to nails, concrete tools and gunny sacks, the last item meant for a building that is to be constructed with wall made of sandbags.

Where do the donated goods come from? All over. KMS Tools, which runs its own Tools For the World program, funnelled 67 pallets worth to the warehouse last year.

Yet another Victoria-based program, Soap For Hope Canada, provides hygiene kits, shampoo and the like. Volunteers scoop up unsold volumes from the Times Colonist Book Sale.

One guy refurbished 500 bicycles recovered from the Hartland landfill. Other bikes, unclaimed from the Saanich Police and Sidney/North Saanich RCMP, were repaired by inmates at William Head prison. (A couple of marked police bikes donated by the Central Saanich department are now being used by a police force in Zambia.)

The volunteers maintain high standards. The rule of thumb is nobody packs a shipping pallet with stuff that they wouldn’t want to receive.

It’s amazing what gets recycled, and how it can be put to good use. After the civil war of 2011, Stirling assembled an entire training lab for Libyan nursing students with nothing but materials no longer needed by Vancouver Island hospitals.

Stirling’s organization, ICROSS Canada — it stands for International Committee for the Relief of Suffering and Starvation — was founded by her military-man dad and nurse mother in 1998 after they returned from a trip to Africa with images of poverty fresh in their minds. It has worked hand-in-hand with the Compassionate Resource Warehouse from the get-go.

Five years ago, it partnered with a Jordanian group to open a free clinic catering mainly to a sea of refugees crammed into an old peach field on the Syrian border. Stirling outfitted it by dropping $4,000 at the Ikea in Amman.

Then came a second clinic in Jordan and a third in Lebanon. All are staffed by refugees. This week’s container will go to a Jordanian church that serves 500 refugee families.

Once emptied, it will be converted into a teaching kitchen, but right now it’s packed with everything from materials for a soap-making program to art supplies. (Wergeland has drawings from refugee children who used art supplies from Victoria to work their way through the trauma of war. These are children who have nothing, literally nothing, to their names. “The stories, they break your heart,” she says.)

Again, ICROSS Canada is just one of the groups working the warehouse. This is just one of 500 containers. Stirling, who has spent much of her life in places far less comfortable than ours, can’t say enough about the Victoria volunteers and their leader: “Dell, she is a modern-day Mother Teresa. She is an absolute blessing.”

This container should reach Jordan in early May.

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