In 1978, Don and Deyon Stephens were serving in Europe with the evangelical missions group Youth With A Mission. Since a time when he had helped clean up after a deadly Caribbean hurricane, Don had dreamed of a hospital ship that could bring high-quality, sanitary medicine to poor port cities. When he learned that a retired Italian cruise ship was being sold for scrap value, he approached YWAM donors for financial support, recruited 175 volunteers, and borrowed a million dollars from a Swiss bank to take possession.
By 1981 they had rehabbed the ship into seaworthiness, and hundreds of volunteers had been recruited to man her hospital bay and cruising operations. Evangelical Christian donors supplied both the funds and the bodies. Mr. and Mrs. Stephens and their four children lived on the ship for the next ten years, organizing the crew of 400 dedicated volunteers as the ship visited a series of poor countries to offer complex surgeries, dental care, vision repair, and other medical assistance.
In 2003 Mercy Ships was spun off from YWAM as a separate charity. Today it operates a 367-bed hospital ship where 1,778 life-changing surgeries were carried out and 728 African health-care professionals were given technical training in 2014. The ship also provided 12,597 free dental treatments and 6,259 vision consultations.
All positions from surgeon to deckhand are filled by volunteers, some serving for as little as two weeks, some for many years. Every volunteer is required to pay all of his or her own expenses, so that all cash donations go directly into medical care. Shipboard volunteers are also important as blood donors.
From 1978 to 2014, Mercy Ships provided free medical aid to 2.5 million poor patients in 57 nations, and trained more than 40,000 local medical professionals to improve their expertise. The organization was sustained by $82 million of personal contributions and in-kind gifts from medical suppliers in 2014. A second ship that will have 458 working beds is on order and scheduled to go into service in 2018.
- 2014 Annual Report of Mercy Ships, mercyships.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/MSUS-AR-2014-Final-R1-lo-pps.pdf