Post Series: Unique Places to Call Home
Photo Credit Josh Callow - Keith Brinkman (USA) manages the crowd and directs patients to the screening team when they are ready.

A floating hospital in the middle of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar, Africa, may not be the usual response you get when you ask someone about their ideal home. But for Keith Brinkman, Mercy Ships (or nearby temporary housing) have served as his “Home Sweet Home” for nearly 27 years. In this second installment of my Unique Places to Live series, you’ll meet people like him who dare to live outside of the box.

“My home is a cabin on the world’s largest private hospital ship,” said Brinkman, who learned about Mercy Ships in 1985 after the hospital’s founder visited his college campus in Texas to recruit volunteers. “Most of my family still lives in the greater Indianapolis area. I do get leave time to visit my family and friends or just get off the ship for a bit.”

He is currently living on the ship “The Africa Mercy,” home to about 400 people from approximately 45 countries. Through donations, the floating hospital provides free surgeries and life-changing medical training to thousands around the globe who live in poverty.

Mercy Ships, an international charity founded in 1978, has impacted the lives of more than 15.2 million people around the world. Critical surgeries and dental procedures are performed aboard the charity’s fleet of ships by hundreds of volunteers. Volunteers must pay for their food and housing, for the opportunity to work and serve a global community.

Keith Brinkman AFM Cabin 4236 (1)

The 49-year-old has served in various positions over the years including accountant, financial officer and finance director. He currently serves as Programs Administration Manager, where he works with host countries to map out project plans, budgets, training, tracking project expenses, among many other responsibilities.

“I really enjoy the variety in my days,” he said, “Living and serving in an international community onboard a hospital ship, bringing hope and healing is incredible.”

Thanks to his service, visits to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Haiti and the Dominican Republic resulted in a decked-out cabin with gifts he collected over the years from his travels. On display are beautifully painted elephants, giraffes and other beloved items. Since his cabin walls are metal, he uses magnets to display decorations and photos of friends and family.

“The size of my living quarters are approximately 13 feet by 8 feet. This is larger than any of my former cabins on ships in the past. The sizes and configuration of the cabins vary,” Brinkman admitted. “I’m most thankful for a single cabin with a shared toilet and shower with my neighbor Saul, who is our lead dentist from Peru.”

Brinkman said he enjoys sitting in his IKEA-style recliner to relax after a day’s work. His house plant doubles as a Christmas tree, with decorations during the holidays. The crew enjoys the public areas onboard the ship, like the lounges, the Starbucks cafe and the small swimming pool to relax. But his favorite place is the ship’s bow.

“After our work is complete, many of us go there to watch for whales, dolphins and flying fish, and to enjoy the magnificent sunsets across the waters,” he said. “My most memorable experiences are with patients both in the hospital onboard and those at our facility ashore,” he recalled. “After working, I like to spend time with [patients] in the hospital wards and at the HOPE Center it’s a great highlight.”

Christmas Cabin 2013

He described some patients that he’s come to know, including 16-year-old Berthelin, whom had sailed two days on a small boat to reach the Mercy Ship. The teen desperately needed surgery on his feet and after an amputation and two surgeries, he successfully recovered. Through a translator, Berthelin described how happy he was to have received treatment. The budding artist drew Brinkman a picture as a gift.

“The best thing about living on a ship is the amazing opportunity to live, work, have fun, worship, laugh and cry together in our floating unique home,” he explained. “The biggest challenge is since we live and work in the same 152-meters-long ship, it is sometimes challenging to maintain healthy work-life balance and boundaries.”

When asked, Brinkman admits he predicted his life and home to look very different than they do today.

“I thought I would have a computer-related job, a wife, two kids, a dog and the white picket fence in my front yard; a ‘normal’ life,” he explained. “But, I believe God had other thoughts and plans for my life, and it has been an amazing adventure. I have friends all around the world now from the countries we visit and serve, and from crew who have come and gone home.”

Brinkman said that many others have foregone a traditional home and lifestyle for a life of volunteerism. He estimated only about half of the positions on the ship are medical related and the other half are technical, engineering, managerial and support roles, among others.

“To make this charity possible, it takes many willing hearts and hands to come and serve onboard and also those who support us as crew individually and the organization,” he said. “Together, we’re impacting individuals who will impact their families, communities and countries!”

To learn more about the work that Brinkman and others do on Mercy Ships, visit their volunteer website or check out this overview video to see how they impact people’s lives every day. If you’re considering moving into a unique home, there are a number of things to consider, so take some time to find out what to expect from living in a non-traditional space.

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