Friday, October 28, 2016

A New Season

Newcastle, England 2007
Hello Family and Friends,

We pray this finds you well.  We want to let you know that it's time for a new season in our lives.  After ten years with Mercy Ships we are stepping out into what God has for us next.  Peter has accepted a position at the Target warehouse about twenty minutes away and is looking forward to working with his hands again as a Security Specialist.  Dara will continue to work the early morning shift at FedEx.

Our ten years with Mercy Ships have been incredible and we have made friends and memories that will last forever.  We have also learned more than a few things about God, ourselves, and the world around us that we probably never

Liberia 2008
We don't have any plans to move away from East Texas and will continue to live in our home in Van.  It's a great little town, we've got an awesome church family, and the kids love the school here.  Grace is doing great at UT Dallas.

We are especially grateful to those who have supported us through prayer, encouragement, and finances over the years.  We couldn't have done it without you!  Mercy Ships will continue to process our support through the 14th of November and we would appreciate any gifts until that time just to help us through the transition and with Christmas expenses.  You can give here:
 Any donation made on our behalf after the 14th of November will go into the Mercy Ships general operating fund.
Just before we left the Africa Mercy in 2015

Blessings to you all!

Upward and Onward,
The Koontz Family

Monday, February 1, 2016

Uh huh...but what do you DO?

Though most people are too polite to directly ask that question, you may be wondering what we do here in the Mercy Ships Maritime Training Center.  I'll be adding a snippet from time to time highlighting an aspect of our responsibilities here.

First and foremost, we exist to ensure that the maritime professionals who keep the ship (and soon to be ships) safe and running smoothly are appropriately and adequately trained for their roles.  There are a number of reasons to use a ship as a delivery platform, and perhaps that can be a topic for a future post.  For now, suffice it so say that 30+ years have proven this to be a very effective model for running a hospital in developing nations (read: poor land-based infrastructure).

We provide some of the training to our maritime staff internally and some is farmed out to training centers that offer courses that we don't/can't.  Either way there is much that goes into the process from an administrative/logistical perspective.  The below process flow chart is something I recently created to help us better visualize the process and work toward a shared web-based workflow.  Many of the sub-processes are workflows in and of themselves (e.g. purchase orders and certificate generation) but this provides a visual overview of what goes into getting someone into a course and tracking the relevant data.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


Why do I get up five days a week to work for an organization that doesn't pay me?

Why do I continue to trudge forward in a role that isn't the best fit for me but needs to be done?

Why don't I use my degree, experience, and skills to go get a 'real' job?

Why should you consider financially supporting our family as I volunteer with Mercy Ships (we struggle to be vulnerable with our financial status but suffice it so say we're $800 a month short of the low end of our budget)?

Minette is why.

Minette’s Cinderella Story

Minette excitedly sat in the chair, patiently waiting as the hairstylist worked her magic. She could hardly believe this moment had arrived – the moment when someone wasn’t afraid to touch her and wanted to style her hair. An hour later she emerged with her braids perfectly in place, ready for a celebratory party that she has desired for a long time … for 16 years. Today, Minette felt as special as the fairy tale princess Cinderella. No, Minette was not heading to a ball to meet her prince, but her biggest wish had already come true … 

When Minette was five years old, her father, Robert, was heartbroken to discover that his little girl showed signs of a condition called neurofibroma – tumors that grow on nerves throughout the body. In a developing country like Madagascar, little is known about neurofibromas or how to treat them. But Robert knew this condition all too well – he was also afflicted with the disease, which first appeared when he too was only five. 

“It's something from life, something God let happen to us,” he said. “No one else in our family has it.” 

Sometimes neurofibromas are small, and affected individuals can hide their condition. However, the normal process is that one tumor grows much larger than all the others. Robert’s large neurofibroma was on his right wrist. On first glance, it looked like he’s holding a sack of groceries. 

Minette’s large neurofibroma grew in a much more delicate place – from the top of her neck at the base of her skull where the hairline ends. It looked like part of her hair. It caused Minette nothing but heartache. People were afraid to touch her. She endured the ridicule of being singled out by other children. Neighbors said the family was cursed. 

And it kept getting worse. By the time Minette was 21, the large growth had reached her waist and weighed 4.3 kilograms (approximately 9 pounds). It was difficult to walk, stand or sit. To cover her deformity, Minette wore over-sized t-shirts. She was withdrawn and unsmiling. “People wouldn’t treat me as a human being,” she said. 
Minette wished for a cure, but in the real world, fairy godmothers don’t exist. Or do they? Minette’s fairy godmother came in the unusual form of a 16,500-ton hospital ship, the Africa Mercy – a ship dedicated to offering free specialized surgeries to the poorest of the poor. 

Robert and Minette first heard about Mercy Ships on the radio. A hospital ship providing free surgeries sounded too good to be true. Villagers warned them that the foreigners on the ship would steal their organs and conduct experiments on them. 

But they were desperate for a cure. So, father and daughter ignored the warnings and made the three-hour journey to the ship in a cramped bus. 

Upon arriving, Minette was evaluated by volunteer surgeons and staff for surgery. Everyone could see her her misery – she didn’t smile, never made eye contact, and wore a constant grimace. 

Volunteer surgeon Dr. Tertius Venter and his surgical team had a simple goal – to remove as much of Minette’s neurofibroma as possible without reducing her range of motion or damaging nerves. 

On the morning of her surgery, nurses helped Minette prepare for surgery by scrubbing down her large neurofibroma. Two nurses worked together to lift the growth that Minette had carried alone for so many years. The surgical team worked over three hours and removed the huge tumor … an immediate physical transformation! 

Minette’s wish to be loved was even deeper than her wish for her tumor to be removed. However, years of rejection made it difficult for her to accept that love. Over the next few days, the all-volunteer crew gave Minette blood transfusions, and prayed and cared for her in a way she’d never before experienced. Every day the nurses, chaplains, and crew loved on Minette …  and her emotional and spiritual healing slowly blossomed in the warmth of acceptance and love. 

And then the transformational moment came … the moment when Minette flashed a smile … the moment when Minette’s “real” personality emerged. Beauty and joy radiated from her face … and she’s still smiling. 

“It was just really beautiful to see someone go from very little confidence to knowing that she could be confident and knowing that she was loved,” shared Stacia Julian, ward nurse and team leader for the plastics program. “There is so much light in her eyes now and true joy coming from her.” 

Now the large mass is gone from her life – and so are the oversized t-shirts! Minette updated her wardrobe to wear the dresses she always wanted to wear but never could. 

As she continued her recovery at the Mercy Ships land-based HOPE Center, Minette was able to make friends for the first time. She and a patient named Sarah formed a special bond over board games, painted nails and fashion! 

Nine months after her transformational surgery, Minette is still smiling. When asked what had changed the most in her life, she thought about it for a moment and then answered, “I can now get someone to do my hair. Before people were afraid, and now it’s no problem."

Then it was time for father and daughter to return home ... both very grateful for their restorative surgeries. 

Minette commemorated her transformation with the long-anticipated trip to the hairdresser and a party to celebrate her “happily ever after” story … her version of Cinderella’s fairy tale.  And, who knows? There may be a wonderful Prince Charming in her future who will be captivated by her beautiful smile. 

Nine months after her transformational surgery, Minette is still smiling. When asked what has changed the most in her life, she thought about it for a moment and then answered, “I can now get someone to do my hair. Before people were afraid, and now it’s no problem.”

Story by Tanya Sierra
Edited by Nancy Predaina

Photos by Katie Keegan and Ruben Plomp

Minette is one of many incredible stories of transformation.  Being a part of that transformation is "why".  Would you like to join us in helping to transform lives?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Behind the Scenes

The following story highlights Emma Davis, one of the students in the Basic Training course I recently instructed here at the International Operations Center.  Though we no longer serve on the ship in Africa, we continue to work behind the scenes to bring hope and healing to the poor through excellence in training.

On a mission: Cranberry grad to sail to Africa 

Cranberry High School graduate Emma Davis holds a child during a mission trip to a small village called Mapasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. Davis will travel on the ship the Africa Mercy in August to Tamatave, Madagascar.

As a child growing up in the Cranberry area, Emma Davis says she didn't know anything about nursing and would have been squeamish about anything a nurse would do. 

But that was then. And this is now. 

Now, the 27-year-old Cranberry High School and Edinboro University graduate is training in Tyler, Texas, preparing to travel half-way around the world in August, as an adult intensive care unit nurse. 

Davis will embark aboard the Africa Mercy, part of the fleet of the global charity Mercy Ships. She will be part of a team of medical professionals granting free health care to the people of Tamatave, Madagascar, the huge island nation off the east coast of Africa. 

Davis' journey from high school to become a third-world ICU medical missionary, has been anything than what she expected. 

"I loved health class in high school," Davis said. "Then God spoke to me and I thought I was going to have an easy route, but I was wrong." 

God's way of preparing Davis as a medical missionary after graduating college in 2010, landed her at UPMC Hamot in Erie, equipped with the only trauma center in the tri-state area offering trauma-neuro-surgical care in an ICU. 

"It was totally God to put me in a trauma unit," said Davis. "It was the best experience I could get, combining both specialized and general care at the same time. With the high acuity of patients right off the bat, it made me look at the big picture so much more than if I'd been a floor nurse." 

After moving to Erie for her job at Hamot, Davis was invited to a Christian group called Erie Young Adults, and began attending Erie First Assembly of God Church, both of which had a deep impact on her life. 

"I had found community and it wasn't in a bar," Davis said. "They taught me how to take the Christianity I had learned as a child and make it my own personal faith." 

Having grown up in the church, Davis knew all about Christianity as a religion, but not as a personal relationship with Jesus. 

Her new church encouraged mentorships for young adults and Davis was cautiously interested, and agreed to be mentored.

"I have trust issues, so I was leery," said Davis. "But I felt it was a God thing and went in being totally honest and open. I took what she said and applied it to the Word of God to make sure it lined up, and it did." 

As Davis continued to grow in her faith, she began to feel she was supposed to do something more with the talents and training she had as an ICU trauma nurse. She began to think about medical missions. 

Davis had been on mission trips in high school. She traveled into Appalachia several times with a friend from Heckathorn United Methodist Church in Seneca. Those were service-based mission projects helping the impoverished in a variety of ways. 

Years later, in 2012, and with a renewed faith, Davis saw that a friend on Facebook was going on a medical and nutritional mission trip to Africa. She felt this was her opportunity to do something more with what God had given her. 

"I had always wanted to go to Africa," Davis said. "The country was calling me, pulling at my heart." 

She joined her friend on a mission trip to a small village called Mapasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in central Africa. 

Davis volunteered at a medical and nutritional center, mainly helping with a feeding program helping children from infancy through teenage years. The project wasn't as medically-based as she originally thought, but she was able to "be around some of the surgeries," and the experience had a powerful impact on her life and desire to serve. 

"Everywhere you looked there was poverty," said Davis. "It's so different from what you see on television - to be standing in the middle of a garbage pile where these people actually live. And the medical care in third world countries is shocking." 

"My role in Mapasa was not as a nurse," Davis said. "But it was such a culture shock, I'm not even sure I could have been (a nurse on that mission). God opened my eyes to what was going on in the world, and after that experience I didn't know what I'd be doing next." 

Davis may not have known what she would do next, but she said God knew. 

About two years ago Davis saw a segment on "60 Minutes" on Mercy Ships, a Christian-based medical ministry that operates a fleet of hospital ships providing free health care to poor people in nations all over the world.

"I started bawling," said Davis. "It was perfect. I thought maybe I will do that someday." 

Davis said it wasn't an easy process. It was about a year later when she joined with her church in a time of fasting, and things began to happen. 

"I was really hungry and just wanted a sandwich," Davis said. "But instead I went to study the Word, and Mercy Ships just popped into my head." 

Davis prayed and consulted her mentor. She filled out an application and it took months of hard waiting, struggling and trusting God. But in April, she finally received the call that she would be an adult ICU nurse for a year of field service on the Mercy Ship "Africa Mercy," heading to Madagascar in August. 

She's now in her five-week basic training to orient her to life on a medical ship and long-term service in a third-world country. 

"I'm learning all the on-board training stuff for staff committed to at least a year or more," said Davis. "I'm learning all about Mercy Ships' core values, about living in a community and how much we need to rely on God. We're spending a lot of time in prayer and I'm also learning about west African culture." 

Mercy Ships has an impressive track record of international outreach ministry. 

Since 1978, the nonprofit organization has served more than 2.5 million people. Free medical services and materials have been provided in developing nations valued at over $1.2 billion. 

Annually, Mercy Ships has over 1,600 volunteers who help in locations around the world, 900 of which serve in Africa. 

The Africa Mercy alone has had more than 3,400 crew members from 72 countries serve onboard since its launch in 2007. It has five operating theaters, 82 patient beds and berths for an average crew of 450. 

When Davis arrives in Madagascar in August, she can't be certain what her daily routine will be, since as an ICU trauma nurse, nothing can be truly called routine. 

Types of cases she will likely deal with are maxillofacial in nature. Often, Mercy Ships provide medical care for patients needing tumors removed, plastic surgery for severe burns, and treatment for mouth deformities such as cleft lips or palates.

"It's hard to have expectations," Davis said. "I'm just excited to see how God will reveal himself to me, to our patients and to all the people I'll be working with. But I do expect to see physical, emotional and spiritual healings." 

Davis has committed to serve on the "Africa Mercy" for a full year. She could extend that to two years or even longer, depending on what God speaks to her over the next 12 months. 

"I'm most excited that the ship is faith-based, living the 2,000-year-old model of Jesus," said Davis. "The culture may be different, but we can give them hope for a future showing them Jesus, especially those with those incredibly large tumors. They've been so ostracized from society. I can't wait to get over there and just love on them." 

Credit: E. CURTIS HANNA Staff writer | Posted: Saturday, June 20, 2015

Thursday, August 13, 2015

What if...

Rudyard Kipling penned a poignant and piercing poem titled “If” that describes the outworking of virtues that a man will display when he is truly “a man”.  It is a moving piece and stirs one, hopefully, to strive toward greater resilience and strength.  There is something about it that bothers me, though.  It is all about self-effort.  Not only that; there is also the implication also that one is not a “man” until he has achieved the pinnacle of unwavering fortitude.  Kipling does not seem to make allowance for brokenness or reliance on others – both representative of humility – as manly attributes. 

Recently, as most reading this are aware, we relocated to the United States to volunteer with Mercy Ships at the headquarters in East Texas after eight years on the Africa Mercy.  Many aspects of this change in season have been wonderful.  And yet far too often I find myself grumbling, getting frustrated, and bemoaning this, that, or the other thing. 

“Why can’t this stupid software program work like I want it to?”

“Why does that person __________?”

“Why does my stupid ankle still hurt two years after my injury?”

“I’m so tired of relying on other people to financially support us.  God, why won’t you let me go get a ‘real’ job?”

“Why can’t you kids remember to chew with your mouths closed or not track dirt all over the floor?”

The list could go on but you get the idea.  I am embarrassed to share these frustrations, pride issues, fears, and examples of my poor parenting.  I would much prefer that you all think I am a spiritual giant reminiscent of the ‘man’ in Kipling’s “If”.  As our family walks this new path, though, I keep seeing or hearing things that lead me to believe that God is cultivating patience, grace, humility, and dependence on Him in these circumstances.  I think that one of the outward displays of walking the right direction with God through this is little moments of gratitude.  For me, it isn’t If but What If.

What if
…I thank God for the efficiency of technology and having grown up in a country where I learned how to use it?

…I see Jesus in the person that I am interacting with and considered how I could be a blessing in their life?

…every time my ankle hurts I remember to pray for those enduring pain and hardship, and choose to be grateful that even though it hurts after lunchtime basketball on Monday it is strong enough to play again in time for lunchtime basketball on Friday?

…I choose to see the blessing in learning to be reliant on others, trust that God will meet our financial needs, and remember that serving with Mercy Ships is very much a ‘real’ job?

…be grateful that my children have food to eat, a yard to play in, and a safe home that they can track dirt through – AND remember what an incredibly blessed man I am to have such amazing kids?

I think that, perhaps, being a man (or woman or child) is much more about embracing these seasons of brokenness for what we can learn from them, the relationships that grow out of them, and the grace that we experience in them than it is about becoming a self-reliant, unshakable rock.  Strength, fortitude, and determinism are good things, Mr. Kipling.  But they aren’t the only good things.  

Monday, June 22, 2015


At the end of May we all arrived in the US after about 48 hours of door to door travel; Dara, Grace, and Xavier to Seattle and Elijah, Malachi, and I to East Texas.  Dara and company spent a couple of weeks visiting family in the Northwest while my gang got the house set up in lovely Van, TX.  Though it's only about 1,400 square feet it feels like a mansion after a 500 sq. ft. cabin.  I also spent a week at the International Operations Center for Mercy Ships doing handover for the role that I will fill in Maritime Training beginning the 6th of July.  The first two days will be straight into teaching fire fighting to the current Gateway class. 

This past Sunday morning we were reunited as a family and have spent some time settling and continuing to work around the house and yard.  Transition has been relatively smooth so far.  Certainly there is much adjusting and it is clear that there is much about American culture that our kids aren't familiar with, which is sometimes a blessing.  There are myriad details and the costs of transition are brutal, even with the bonus of having had some furniture and things in storage and some items donated by friends and neighbors.  If you feel called to help out with that you can go here: Donate to the Koontz Family.  We continue to volunteer with Mercy Ships and rely on the support of others to fulfill the mission God has called us to. 

So, we're here.  We're trying to sort out how to reintegrate into things like commutes, grocery shopping, home repairs (our hot water tank ruptured a little over a week ago), etc.  We have been continually blessed along the way and are looking forward to this season.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


Dear Family and Friends,

It has been a season of changes for the Koontz family and the trend continues.  This May we will fly out of Madagascar and away from the Africa Mercy to relocate to East Texas.  I (Peter) will be remaining with Mercy Ships, volunteering at the International Operations Center (IOC) in Maritime Training.  Dara will home-school Xavier, and the older three will enter the public school system in Van, the small city where we will live.

For those that are already financially supporting us we prayerfully ask that you continue to do so.  In fact, we are asking those who have not supported us financially in the past to consider doing so, as living in the states will cost more than living in Africa. Monthly contributions are excellent as they help us to plan better financially.  One time donations to assist with the huge costs involved with relocation (airfare, stocking the pantry, buying a vehicle, etc.) are also very welcome.  Though our location will be different, we will continue to serve in the same organization and contribute to the same mission: bringing hope and healing to the poor through free specialized surgical intervention.  Training hits the sweet spot of my gifts and skills, and I am looking forward to helping ensure that the crew on Mercy Ships vessels is equipped to handle the challenges of shipboard life.

The back story:
We have been prayerful for some time about our future and next steps.  We had a family meeting and collectively felt that God was asking us to close this season of our lives on the Africa Mercy and relocate to the US.  We didn't have much more clarity than that.  In the ensuing weeks we continued to discuss and pray.  God revealed that our time on the Africa Mercy is coming to a close but that He would like us to continue to serve with Mercy Ships. For us this is a leap of faith to trust God in all we do.

As you can perhaps imagine or identify with, we are in a bitter-sweet place.  We are grateful to have clear direction from the Lord and there are many things we are excited about experiencing in the United States - some of us for the first time (Xavier has never lived there and Malachi was 4 when we came to Mercy Ships) - like pets, being closer to family, our own kitchen, and being able to drive a car without having to check the sign out book to see if one is available!  That said, it is also difficult to say goodbye to such a special home, so many wonderful people, and, of course, to Africa. 

Please join us in prayer and perhaps financially as we embark on this next step in the grand adventure that God has for us.

Please also don't hesitate to contact us with any comments, questions, prayers, encouragement, etc.

The Koontz Family