Mercy Ships founder: Answers to basic questions offer direction

Don Stephens
Don Stephens

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Answering three questions offered Don Stephens some of the direction that changed his life and, subsequently, the lives of millions of others.

For Stephens, that meant founding Mercy Ships, an international charity that over the past 36 years has delivered an estimated $1 billion in medical services to more than 2.4 million people.

But the same answers also can offer direction to aspiring entrepreneurs pursing their own dreams, Stephens said.

Stephens, founder and president of Mercy Ships, delivered the keynote address at Entrepreneurship Day events at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction and Montrose.

Stephens and his wife, Deyon, have a connection to the university.

Stephens attended what was at the time Mesa College after graduating from Olathe High School. His wife graduated in 1966 from the nursing program at the college. The couple were among the winners of distinguished alumni awards presented by CMU in 2013.

Stephens said he was inspired to found Mercy Ships  by the work of the 1950s-era hospital ship S.S. Hope as well as visit with Mother Theresa and her Sisters of Charity in India.

Stephens recounted that visit with what he described as a diminutive, but direct, nun.

Stephens said he had prepared questions beforehand he’d wanted to ask Mother Theresa, but she insisted instead on asking him three questions:

Why were you born?

Where is the pain in your life?

What are doing about your dreams?

The first question is a fundamental one, Stephens said, in determining a purpose in life.

The second question can be a difficult one to answer, particularly for people who’d rather dismiss or ignore the pain in their lives, he said.

The third question constitutes a call to action, he said.

In answering the questions Mother Theresa posed, Stephens decided his purpose in life was to launch a hospital ship that would provide medical services to the poor.

One of the pains in his life, he said, is the challenges faced by a severely autistic son who can’t talk. Stephens said Mother Theresa told him that if he pursued his dream of a hospital ship, his son’s voice would be heard by thousands.

Shortly after visiting with Mother Theresa, he began looking for a ship that could be converted into a floating hospital.

Although he had no experience or training in managing health care services or operating a large ship, Stephens said he was able to obtain a loan for $900,000 that was used to purchase an ocean liner for its scrap value and turn it into the MV Anastasis, a floating hospital with operating rooms, a dental clinic, X-ray machine and laboratory.

The Stephens were among the crew of  350 volunteers aboard the ship and lived there with their four children for 10 years. The couple now lives and works out of Texas.

Mercy Ships since has operated four hospital ships, including the Africa Mercy now in service. At nearly 500 feet long, the vessel is the largest charity hospital ship in the world and comes equipped with five operating rooms, an intensive care unit and ward for up to 82 patients and accommodations for a crew of 450.

Stephens said a new ship will be constructed for delivery in the summer of 2017. At 570 feet long, the ship will be the largest civilian hospital ship in the world and double the capacity for medical services.

Since Mercy Ships was founded in 1978, the charity has operated in more than 70 countries and provided medical services valued at more than $1 billion to more than 2.4 million people.

A total of more than 1,600 volunteers from 45 nations provide those services, including surgeons, nurses and dentists as well as teachers, cooks and seamen.

Stephens said Roland Decorvet, chairman & chief executive officer of Nestlé China, soon will join Mercy Ships as managing director of the Africa Mercy.

While Stephens realized his dream of providing health care aboard hospital ships, he said his experiences apply to other pursuits, including business ventures.

Stephens said he started his charity with the end in mind and encouraged entrepreneurs to similarly put their dreams in writing, develop business plans and then share their aspirations with others.

A lack of funding shouldn’t necessarily stand in the way of entrepreneurs, he added. “Start something without regard to the funds they don’t have.” Others who believe in the venture will join in making it happen, he added.

Success also depends on perseverance during difficult times, Stephens said, recounting instances in which he was purchasing fuel one drum at a time and plumbing problems on board a ship wreaked havoc. “Stick with it even in light of exploding toilets.”

The hard work eventually pays off. For Stephens that means not only the collective results of Mercy Ships, but also the individual results of helping children with disfiguring facial deformities and disabilities that hamper their ability to walk.

“Is it worth it? Absolutely.”