Salt Lake City family of five ready to board the Africa Mercy for 2 years of service at sea

Published: Monday, June 11 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Knowing that they'll be helping entire populations is "professionally and personally very rewarding," he said. Also rewarding is seeing his children gain exposure to the world.

Abigail Runnels, 12, said she'll miss her pets and friends the most, but she's looking forward to "seeing the different environments, the culture and meeting new people."

Abigail has been to Africa twice with her mother and said she enjoyed it immensely. She's actually an experienced world-traveler, having visited nearly every continent.

"This will be different than Ghana," she said. "Ghana's not as poor as the place we are going."

The ship has satellite communication abilities, allowing those on-board to email and call home whenever they like, which Abigail said she'll take advantage of, to keep in contact with her friends.

"I think we caught her at just the right time, one more year and she might have been less excited," Runnels wrote online about his preteen. "Her drift away from us as the center of her life to her friends has begun in earnest — noticeable, but not painful yet. I'll be happy to have her out of the American teen culture for a few years. Elise, 9, and Rhys, 6, have no angst and are full-on engaged in the adventure. For them, it's nothing less than running away to Africa and living on a pirate ship, no worries at all. I envy their innocence."

A variety of amenities are available on-board, including a small pool to cool off from the equatorial climate, an accredited educational academy for schoolchildren, a gym, library, hair salon, laundry facilities, as well as a Starbucks that serves lattes for a mere 25 cents. Runnels said having various comforts, as well as security provided, allows for more attention to be paid to the service being given.

Meals are provided, however, families can cook for themselves in available spaces and the commute to work is just down the hallway. When not working, participants are encouraged to venture off the ship and take part in other humanitarian efforts on land, as well as sight-see and explore what the area has to offer.

Staff are asked to pay per-person crew fees each month, as well as an extra cost for kids to attend school. Runnels and Ellis, who up until recently worked at the local Community Health Center, have been working overtime and gone without vacations for the last year-and-a-half, leading up to the upcoming two-year excursion.

Extended family has also provided financial help for the trip, which begins in mid-August, when the family will board Africa Mercy in the Canary Islands.

"For the experience we will get for our children and the personal growth for ourselves and the professional rejuvenation we will get, I think it is a cheap price for service," Runnels said.

Ellis plans to help the organization set up better women's health programs in Africa, expanding services for obstetric and gynecologic care. And in addition to surgeries, Runnels will help educate local physicians, to encourage a more sustainable health care system within the various countries Mercy Ships visits.

The family is most looking forward to being together, without all the "static" that abides in their daily lives.

"We're busy here in the states and the paradox is that even though you live together under the same roof, you don't see much of each other because we're all headed in different directions," Runnels said. "One of the nice things about traveling is that you're all forced to be in the same place."

Here in Utah the family's primary breadwinner spends every other weekend on-call at the hospital, which means even longer hours away from home.

"One of the things that has changed in our modern world is that we're not allowed to be bored or inactive at any time and I think that is where you form relationships and really get to know people and strengthen family ties," he said.

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