Healing hands

Charity | Medical Teams International seeks to "show Jesus in action" after disasters

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

Wherever it goes, Portland, Ore.-based Medical Teams International (MTI) declares, "Hope is on the way."

In the United States, MTI is known for its fleet of Winnebagos-10 in all-that have been converted to mobile dental clinics. Around the world, the group is known for often being first on the scene at disasters and conflicts. Currently, MTI is working in Kenya, Cameroon, Uganda, and 30 other countries. And everywhere, MTI says its mission is the same: "Demonstrate the love of Christ to people affected by disaster, conflict and poverty around the world."

Among nonprofit executives, MTI is known as one of the best run and most financially efficient ministries in the world, with less than 5 percent of its budget going to operating overhead. MinistryWatch, Charity Navigator, and Forbes have all recognized the group with top ratings.

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So how did MTI become one of the largest ministries in the world-with $90 million in 2007 income-while remaining one of the least known? "We measure," MTI President Bas Vanderzalm said. "We have a three-year strategic plan developed in conjunction with the board of trustees, the executive management team, key staff, and longtime volunteers. And we're constantly learning."

Vanderzalm said a key element of MTI's work is extensive use of volunteers. "We provide everyone with an opportunity to make a difference for the kingdom by caring for the poor," he said. By utilizing volunteers, MTI leaders believe they help to unify the Body of Christ to provide opportunities for believers to use their talents while "being blessed" by those whom they serve. "Some plant, some water, and others see the harvest. Those of us in relief and development are doing land clearing and cultivation that will result in the harvest," Vanderzalm said.

The end result is somewhere between the "short-term" mission trip and the full-time vocational missionary. "Our teams are volunteer professionals," said Vanderzalm. "We recruit professional medical, dental, and work teams who volunteer their time. Development teams cover their expenses and sometimes gather donated supplies for the hospitals and clinics where they serve." Vanderzalm said MTI works "within existing church structures" to provide medical and technical expertise that locals don't have, or don't need on a day-to-day basis.

MTI has also had a long-term impact with the establishment of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) programs in Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, and Cambodia. "For many developing countries, the lack of basic emergency medical services-trained paramedics, ambulances, or 911 systems-means millions of premature deaths annually," Vanderzalm said. The EMS system in Sri Lanka grew out of its tsunami disaster relief. Today, three years later, Sri Lanka is implementing a country-wide EMS program, with MTI's training and other help.

Vanderzalm said the Sri Lanka experience pointed to two other keys to MTI's effectiveness: that the ministry and all those working with it must always be learning-and it doesn't matter who gets the credit. "I don't really care if people see our name or logo," Vanderzalm said. "I do care if they see God in action, through people who love Jesus and cared for them in His name."

-Michael Barrick contributed to this article

About Medical Teams International

  • 5-star Ministry Efficiency Ranking (top ranking) from MinistryWatch
  • 4-star Ranking (top ranking) from Charity Navigator for the fifth year in a row
  • Provides free dental care annually valued at more than $5.3 million
  • Uses more than $100 million in donated medicines worldwide
  • Presently working in the United States, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bolivia, Honduras, Romania, Sudan, Vietnam, and about 30 other nations
  • Uses sports programs and drama to help combat HIV/AIDS in Uganda
  • Partners internationally to develop relief and development programs
Rusty Leonard and Warren Cole Smith
Rusty Leonard and Warren Cole Smith


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