Born in South Africa and raised in South Carolina, Elaine Alston was “bit by the give back bug” in nursing school. After a stint with a hospital program called Personal Touch Volunteers, she realized volunteering was her calling.
Alston was inspired to start Nurses With Purpose after visiting her birth country in 2010. “I hadn’t been back to Johannesburg since I was five years old,” she says. “When I got there and put my feet on that ground, something just ignited. I wanted to give back to this beautiful country, so I began medical missions as a nurse.”
Her vision: To bring in small groups of nurses to local clinics, doing the same kind of volunteer work she loved in nursing school. In doing so, she wanted to create an organization that centered around nurses; providing a variety of enriching experiences and encouraging them to channel their love of nursing into meaningful humanitarian work.
Since 2017, Nurses With Purpose has been primarily involved in organizing and leading medical mission trips to South Africa and Guatemala. The trips are open to nurses of all levels and practice areas with at least one year of clinical experience. And even though mostly women apply, they are actively trying to recruit men to their programs.
“We’ve got an all-male trip to Congo in July, working under the direction of the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation,” she says. Mutombo is a retired NBA star turned humanitarian, and Alston hopes the sports connection will inspire men to get involved. “We want to get men excited about going on a mission trip, and why not do it with an NBA basketball Hall of Famer?”
A Nurses With Purpose trip doesn’t just impact patients. Nurses often return with a new outlook on their profession, and their world.
Many find newfound gratitude for the resources they have. After a South Africa trip, one nurse talked about having to pull individual cottons ball apart so one could serve five people. It made her she realize how much she took supplies for granted. “She said, ‘I don’t shove my pockets with alcohol swabs and throw them away at the end of the shift anymore.”
Other nurses talk about the sacrifices patients make to access care, the long distances they travel, and the gratitude they express. On a practical side, the scope of practice tends to be much broader in these clinics, and nurses tend to have more autonomy in their volunteer roles.
Though the benefits are many, Nurses with Purpose, or any medical mission trip, isn’t for everyone. “Nurses need to do their research, to make sure their goals, beliefs, and type of nursing they may want to experience is in line with the mission organization.”
“You give your whole being to a medical mission. If you are not 100% ready to do it, don’t go.” However, those who do volunteer with Nurses With Purpose often find themselves, like Alston, catching the “give back bug.”
This March, five nurses are returning for their third Nurses With Purpose mission, which she feels speaks volumes about the program. “They want to be a part of this on a continual basis. It’s not just a bucket list thing.”
To find out more about Nurses with Purpose, including details of their all-male trip to the Congo in July 2020, visit their website.