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Colorado Springs high school grad spends gap year aboard Africa hospital ship

December 15, 2017 Updated: December 15, 2017 at 10:15 pm
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Elliana Salter, 18, show pictures Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, on her Facebook page from her experience as a volunteer for Mercy Ships. After graduating from Air Academy High School, Salter, 18, volunteered for four months on the world's largest private hospital ship treating patients in Douala, Cameroon. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Senior year was almost finished at Air Academy High School, and Elliana Salter's friends had made their plans. They would go to college or go to work.

Now they turned to Salter and asked if she was sure about getting on a ship to Africa.

The frequent question she recalls: "You know this is crazy, right?"

"... My friend's mom came up to me and said, 'You know, this sounds really unsafe, I'm worried for you," Salter says. "I was like, 'I think I'll be OK.'"

After four months overseas, she's more than OK. She's back in Colorado Springs with lessons learned from the world's largest nongovernmental hospital ship.

With average crews of 400 representing as many as 40 nations at any time, Africa Mercy is the biggest of four vessels on missions for Mercy Ships. The faith-based organization sets a course for the world's poorest places, with professional volunteers onboard to perform free surgeries and provide health care for people with no other options.

Elliana Salter preps tomatoes as part of her volunteer job onboard Africa Mercy, the hospital ship under faith-based organization Mercy Ships. Salter graduated Air Academy High School last May to serve four months on the ship that provided free surgeries and healthcare to poor locals. Photo credit: Shawn Thompson, Mercy Ships 

"It was different from any ministry I'd heard of," Salter recalls as she learned about Mercy Ships her freshman year.

At the time, she was pretty sure of two things: She would be an occupational therapist, and she would take a gap year. Like her brother, who out of high school spent months on a mission trip in China, she would see what life was like on the other side of the globe.

The idea of encouraging far-flung gap years for their kids came in Germany, where Janell and Vernon Salter were stationed as missionaries for The Navigators, the Christian ministry in the Springs.

"We think this nation is pretty cushy, that's what it comes down to," says Janell, who grew up in Venezuela and is saddened by the contentious state of the country.

While volunteering four months on the hospital ship Africa Mercy, Colorado Springs' Elliana Salter ran the salad part of the kitchen. The ship under faith-based Mercy Ships was docked at Camaroon to provide free surgeries and healthcare to poor locals. Photo credit: Shawn Thompson, Mercy Ships 

Says her husband, who served overseas for the military: "I think in America it's really hard to become an adult. You can sort of get this rite of passage, grow up and stay very entitled. The easiest way to break out of that mold is an immersion experience cross-culturally."

Elliana didn't need convincing. She believed the experience would do her good - "a reality check" that she doesn't see many of her peers seeking. She believes her generation to be empathetic, "but it's interesting to see how many people are much more concerned with staying safe, staying home, rather than getting other perspectives."

She got that in a kitchen, working 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the deck two levels above where she slept, in a cabin with nine others from Switzerland, Norway and China, to name a few. "I worked a couple of fast-food jobs before," Salter says. "Which in no way prepared me for this."

In between mixing loads of salad, she walked around parts of Cameroon, where the ship was docked. She roamed the merchant-packed Port of Douala. She noticed the area was "half built-up, rich, flourishing," she says. "Across the street, it was very impoverished, with unfinished buildings." More peaceful was Limbe, the village by the sea where she found friendly people living on the fish they caught.

She went to a church and was rather surprised by the pastor casting out demons and throwing holy water. She heard locals talk about witches and fellow crew members speak of their prophetic dreams. She listened to others debate these things.

"It was interesting because they weren't disagreeing on the foundation of faith, but just different aspects of faith," she says.

The patients were most inspiring. She took part in celebrations for women who had been shunned for their maladies and were now cured. When she wasn't in the kitchen, she was often with kids waiting for operations on their bowed legs.

One was named Esther. Salter met the 6-year-old before her surgery and played with her during her rehab. And just before returning to the U.S., she got to see the little girl fully healed.

"It was something else to see her at the end of her journey," she says. "It was like, 'Wow, you can go start life now.'"

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