Hands On Global: Offering Hope and Healing for Refugees

Valerie Hellermann, founder and executive director of Hands On Global, cares for a child in Samos, Greece.

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By Dianna Troyer

Another day had been a blur—a not-one-more-thing-I-can-do-no-more kind of day—at a medical clinic in a Ukrainian refugee camp near the Romanian border last spring.

“We were all so exhausted and still had to cross the border when a grandmother came just as we were about to close,” said Valerie Hellermann, a registered nurse and founder and executive director of Hands On Global, a nonprofit headquartered in Helena, Mont., that tends to the medical needs of the underserved in the United States and abroad. 

She and her longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Georgia Milan, were among a team of volunteers on a 20-day medical mission during March and April. Dr. Milan welcomed the grandmother, her last patient of the day.

“If a person asks for care, Georgia cannot say no,” Hellermann said. “I’ve seen it so often wherever we’ve worked together in Ukraine, Greece, India, South America, or the medical tent at Standing Rock during the oil pipeline stand-down. It took more than an hour to treat the woman, yet Georgia was never impatient or made her feel rushed. She listens, giving her entire attention to the people she sees and makes them feel like they matter. That attitude is so important with refugees because they feel like they’re invisible and forgotten.”

Dr. Milan, a family practice physician and medical director at the Pocatello Free Clinic in Idaho, said, “No one becomes a refugee victimized by war by choice, but we have a choice about how to help. As citizens of the world, we cannot turn our backs on people in these situations and have to step up.”

For Hellermann and Milan, to live is to give as they provide healing and offer hope worldwide. Will they ever retire?

“I have no intention of retiring when there is still so much to do, and I have the energy to keep doing what I love,” said Milan, 71.

Hellermann, 72, echoed her friend’s answer. “I’ll be doing this for as long as I’m able.”

Contemplative Holidays, Hope

Milan said the holidays and New Year are poignant, contemplative times for her to reflect about her life and goals.

“When we reach this age, we’re in the final chapter of our lives,” Milan said. “I ask myself what I want to do to benefit the world and how to be at peace with myself and bring peace to others.”

Hellermann said she might be celebrating the holiday season and New Year’s in a Ukrainian refugee camp. She headed there in late November.

“I’m not sure when I’ll be back or what shelters I’ll be at,” she said. 

Hands On Global is the only non-government organization going into shelters to provide medical care in Chernivtsi, where Hellermann’s team is assigned a shelter every day for setting up a mobile clinic.

One of her most unforgettable Christmases was spent in a crowded refugee camp in Greece several years ago.

“It was a dismal place to be,” Hellermann said. 

Refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Africa lived in unsanitary conditions due to crowding and lack of aid and were treated for tuberculosis, chicken pox, measles, skin conditions, viruses, and lice. They waited in long lines to use a toilet—one for every 70 people. Eighty people were assigned to one shower. Food lines were tedious, too. 

How do they keep hope alive for refugees living in seemingly hopeless circumstances?

“It’s hard with them waiting for asylum,” Hellermann said. “But hope is the only thing a refugee can hang on to.”

Gift of Friendship

To feel hopeful, Hellermann and Milan encourage each other and feel grateful for their friendship, a lifelong gift. They met years ago, the exact year is immaterial to them, at a talk about Tibetan refugees while they were working in Montana. 

“We started chatting and felt like soul sisters who had known each other forever, like kindred spirits with similar ideas and occupations,” Hellermann said. “We’re both Buddhists and believe our mission is to be healers. We both believe health care is a basic human right worldwide.”

At the time, Milan was working in southwestern Montana, focusing on rural and migrant patients. Hellerman lived in Helena, where she was project manager of the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation. In 2014, she was asked to trek into Zanskar, India, a remote region of the Himalayas, to assess healthcare needs there. She organized a medical team and invited Milan.

To work with local residents and accomplish healthcare goals there and in other countries, Hellermann envisioned and established Hands On Global in 2015. The organization’s mission statement is “to serve the disadvantaged, underserved and displaced people hand-to-hand and heart-to-heart by providing medical support.”

Milan accepted her friend’s invitation to serve as a Hands On Global board member.

“Valerie is an exceptional administrator and accomplishes so much,” Milan said. “My personality is to serve more than to organize. When she started Hands On Global, it resonated with me because volunteers would work with and support locals and stay as long as needed. We don’t just show up for a few weeks and leave.” 

To finance her medical philanthropy, Milan raises money to pay for her travel expenses and medical supplies through local fundraising dinners she has, called “Dinner for the Displaced” and “Spread the Love.”

“Pocatello is a special place to live because people are genuinely caring and have a great heart for others in a wider community,” she said. “I’m lucky to live here and to have a flexible job that allows me to volunteer overseas and to have family, friends, and so many others who help.”

Milan has lived throughout the West before calling Pocatello home. After graduating from the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine in 1984 in Minnesota, she completed her family medicine residency in Austin, Texas. 

Accepting a job offer with the Indian Health Services, she treated Mescalero Apaches in New Mexico and the Shoshone-Bannocks at Fort Hall near Pocatello. Wanting to work with rural and migrant populations, she moved to Missoula. To complement her medical expertise, she earned a degree in international humanitarian aid.

“We had many friends in Pocatello, so when an opening came at the free clinic, I applied for the job, and we came back,” she said.

She is unsure of when she will go on another overseas medical mission.

“There are so many needs,” she said. MSN


Hands On Global’s tax-deductible donations are funneled specifically to Ukraine at this time at www.handsonglobal.org/donate. The nonprofit is also hoping for a donated RV to convert into a mobile medical clinic for serving marginalized communities and migrant workers and responding to disasters.

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