Toronto

GlobalMedic: More than 2 decades on mission, relief agency keeps evolving

As charity aid agency deploys a secondary mission to Hurricane-ravaged Bahamas, GlobalMedic founder Rahul Singh reflects on how its mission has evolved over the years and where it hopes to go next.

Founder Rahul Singh reflects on how charity has changed and grown over the years

Rahul Singh, Executive Director of GlobalMedic, helps pack a sea container of boat repair materials at Mississauga-based Composites Canada to send down to the Bahamas. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

When Rahul Singh saw the images of the giant eye of Hurricane Dorian over the Bahamas in September, he knew he and the other first responders who volunteer for GlobalMedic would be in for a busy few months.

For 36 hours, the Category 5 hurricane stalled over the Bahamas, battering the islands with sustained winds as high as 295 km/h.

"It was heartbreaking to watch," said Singh, a Toronto paramedic and the founder and executive director of GlobalMedic.

"We knew there'd be extensive damage and devastation, so we ramped up our preparation and deployed a lot more assets initially because of the magnitude of the storm and the length that it stayed over [the islands]."

Hurricane Dorian as seen from space. The Category Five storm stalled over the Bahamas for 36 hours. (CBC)

When a disaster happens anywhere in the world, GlobalMedic Rapid Response Team volunteers, who are trained first-responders, are often the first boots on the ground.

Singh says the damage caused by the most powerful storm on record to hit the islands was shocking; dozens killed, hundreds missing and thousands homeless.

"We started assessing the damage that was there and it's incredible. If you had a wooden house, it's gone. If you had a brick house or a block made house, you might have lost your roof."

The 49-year-old founded GlobalMedic in 1998 to honour the memory of an old friend, David McAntony Gibson. Now the registered charity has 3,000 volunteers across the country and has provided disaster relief in 73 countries.

It all started in the 1990s, with a group of paramedics who went to Cambodia to support landmine clearing teams.

"We identified a gap and we filled the gap and we progressed and became this disaster response unit that get people clean water and medical care and critical infrastructure shelter and all the items that they need to keep them alive in the aftermath of a disaster," said Singh, adding the team is currently active in seven countries just offered aid to two more.

Over the years, they've been first responders in Haiti after an earthquake, Sri Lanka after an earthquake and tsunami, and most recently the Bahamas. There, food, water and shelter were the immediate priorities, but three months later, Singh says needs have shifted and so has GlobalMedic's mission. 

GlobalMedic's RescUAV team of volunteer drone pilots are among the first deployed to disaster zones to helps map out damage and prioritize rescue and relief efforts. (supplied/GlobalMedic)

"The sea surge came in and flooded so many homes, and have now left such an incredible mold problem that families can't even rebuild until they remediate that mold. We need to do more beyond our initial emergency response to help families get back on their feet," said Singh.

GlobalMedic started a local program that hired 30 local people — so called "Moldbusters" — to remove toxic black mold from housed so that people could move back home.

And this month, Singh says the charity is starting a new program that will help Bahamians to rebuild their livelihoods.

Singh says in some communities, such as McLean's Town Cay and Sweetings Cay in the east of Grand Bahama island, all of the fishermen had lost their boats. 

"So they have no opportunity for livelihood at all because what they would do every single day is take their boat out go catch lobster or conch and then sell it at the side of the road or sell it to tourists or take tourists out to go bone fishing. They can't do that now. They don't have boats."

Still from video shot by GlobalMedic's ResUAV pilot shows some of the devastation on Grand Bahamas Island. (supplied/GlobalMedic)

GlobalMedic partnered with Mississauga-based Composites Canada — which specializes in materials like resins, fibreglass and other products used to make boats — to send a sea container down to the Bahamas.

"They're given us a great discount on pricing and donating a ton of this material and they're going to send one of their technicians down," he said. "We're providing all the materials and the manpower and repairing these boats, which means the impact at the end of the day is these fishermen get to get back out on the water and be able to provide for their families."

Jason Pozzo, 42, is an expert in marine fibre-glass lamination with Composites Canada, who will be going to teach new repair techniques to get the boats seaworthy again. He says he's worried about what he will see down there.

"I can't even grasp it, to be honest. I've never been in a situation like that," he said. "Like you can see photos of things, but it doesn't always give you a real sense of what's going on."

This Bahamas project is just the latest evolution in Global Medic's mission to help those in need.   

Jason Pozzo, aka JP, 42, is an expert in marine fibre-glass lamination at Composites Canada. He will be teaching locals new techniques in boat repair so fishermen in the Bahamas can get back on the water again and make a living. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

"I'd say Global Medic is a pretty unique agency....We're built on the foundation of putting emergency workers into emergency situations. And we started with very humble beginnings," says Singh.

"We've helped over three million people getting them the basics to stay alive. So we just keep evolving."

As for what's next, Singh says he'd like to use what they've learned abroad right here in Canada. That means using innovative techniques and a large and committed volunteer base to drive down costs for food banks across the country. 

"If we get volunteers out packing that food we buy it in bulk, we're able to knock that price point down to only a quarter of what people would pay retail. Which means we could push 400 percent to the amount of food out for that same money," says Singh. "So we've proven the methodology."

As he looks back over two-decades of missions, Singh says he would only do one thing differently.

"I would have pushed harder — just be angrier," he says. "You know, a lot of what fuels me is this rage, this anger at watching these injustices."

A GlobalMedic volunteer helps pack boat repair materials at Composites Canada — a Mississauga-based company that specializes in materials like resins, fibreglass and other products used to make marine repairs. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.

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