Stephen Ryan, Monrovia, Liberia

Irish Red Cross staff member Stephen Ryan in Liberia, October 2014 © Aphaluck Bhatiasevi / WHO
Irish Red Cross staff member Stephen Ryan in Liberia, October 2014 © Aphaluck Bhatiasevi / WHO

Agreeing to travel to Liberia to join Red Cross Ebola response was an easy decision for me to make when I was asked at the beginning of October. Explaining it to my family and friends was a little harder, but once I explained why I agreed and what I would be doing, they found it easier to accept.

I am not a healthcare worker; my job here has nothing to do with treatment units. My focus is on giving affected communities a voice, and to help ensure that their feedback is used to adjust our programmes. It is neither difficult nor dangerous to work here, but it takes patience and commitment.

At the beginning of this crisis, there were not enough funds to do this type of work – donations simply were not coming in, as much of the world chose to look the other way. Now, as funds begin to come in, the Red Cross plans to send Ebola prevention messages to people by using as many communication channels as possible, and to allow affected people to speak for themselves.

For example, talk-back / dial-in radio shows in local languages are being set up in radio stations throughout the country. Location-targeted SMS messages on prevention are being sent out, including telephone numbers for further information. Educational drama performances are being staged to sensitize local communities to the dangers of Ebola and the importance prevention and protection. The list goes on and on. Hundreds of trained volunteers will be involved in disseminating messages and gathering feedback from across this country of 4.2 million people – roughly the same population as Ireland.

The work here is now moving into a new phase – prevention and protection have become more important than ever. Ensuring that behaviours do not lapse into old habits will be key to end the Ebola epidemic here. Giving people the chance to learn, discuss, and give feedback will be key to ensuring that people are not exposed to the virus in the future.

Many of the skills I am passing on here through regular training sessions are about working with communities, skills I learned as volunteer youth leader of the Irish Red Cross: listening, explaining, analysing, and taking action from what I learn.

I joined the Irish Red Cross as a volunteer member of my local branch in Mallow, Co. Cork in 1997. I was 14 years old at the time, and joined because my friends were going, and it sounded like an interesting thing be involved with. Back then I could never have imagined a future career that would bring me all over the world working to help people help themselves. I certainly didn’t expect, 17 years later, to be in Liberia at the centre of the world’s largest Ebola outbreak. It has been quite a journey, but even after spending more than half my life with the Red Cross, I still feel like I am at the beginning.

Stephen Ryan has been an overseas delegate of Irish Red Cross since 2007, and has previously worked in support of emergency operations across Europe and Asia Pacific.

You can donate to the Irish Red Cross emergency Ebola appeal quickly and safely online