Giving His All to Help Others

Don Harris | December 2016

During the holiday season, many of us feel motivated to help others and share our concern for our neighbors. We try a little harder to follow the lyrics of the Christmas carol that quotes the angels singing “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men” and in our small way contribute to that community effort. With this frame of mind, I recently read the story of an extraordinary Catalan man who embodies this giving spirit and has committed his life to help others. 

For Oscar Camps, a Spaniard and career lifeguard, saving people from danger is the focus of his life. Those of you who are familiar with the ocean know that there are many dangers which are not obvious. Almost without noticing you can be swept down the beach by unseen undercurrents or blindsided by powerful waves.

Part of the excitement of swimming in the ocean is just that element of risk and danger. For this reason it is always wiser to be swimming in an area patrolled by lifeguards who take the risks seriously and are vigilant for your safety. What makes Señor Camps extraordinary is that he looked beyond his beach, and even his country, to reach out and rescue as many people as he could.

Last year Mr. Camps became alarmed at newspaper accounts of refugees from the Middle East who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while seeking a new life. They were not in the ocean for fun, but rather to escape with their families from the realities of murder and starvation at the hands of ISIS.

It is a harrowing passage. More than 3,500 people have drowned this year while trying to reach southern Europe, even after each paid traffickers hundreds of dollars to guarantee a safe passage. On November 3rd, two more shipwrecks left another 239 migrants missing at sea.

With this weighing on his mind, Oscar Camps and a concerned friend travelled from Spain east on the Mediterranean as far as they could go. They ended up on the Greek island of Lesbos to see for themselves the situation and to determine what they could do as able-bodied lifeguards to help in the rescue effort.

What the two men saw was overwhelming: the shoreline was littered with the bodies of Syrian refugees washed up from the sea. Mr. Camps said he had no idea how critical the situation in Lesbos had become. They had arrived with little more than swim fins!

Señor Camps told a reporter from El Pais, “After watching a boatful of single men and whole families sink close to me on Lesbos’s rocky northern coast, my view on almost everything changed.” Within two hours of their arrival, he and his friend were taking off their shirts and shoes to jump into the sea to save people from drowning.

Oscar’s compassionate heart spurred him to action, and he decided to start his own nongovernmental aid group, Proactiva, to raise private donations. To begin with, he and his friends repaired some of the less damaged vessels abandoned by refugees on the shores of Lesbos so that they could be used as rescue boats. He invested about $16,000 of his own savings to buy essential boat repair equipment, and he went home to bring two Jet Skis from Spain to Lesbos.

Soon a handful of men volunteered to become the crew of the Proactiva Open Arms rescue operation. That winter they braved dangerous winter storms off the Libyan coast.

A big break came in the spring, when Livio Lo Monaco, the Italian owner of a Spanish mattress company, was so moved by what the young men had dedicated their lives to that he gave them his luxury yacht. 

The Astral is a beautiful yacht, originally built in 1970. In no time Sr. Camps and his team refitted the boat and stripped it of its luxury elements. This leisure boat was now a ship with one mission - saving lives.

The addition of a rescue ship made a huge difference. Since the ship started monitoring the Mediterranean Sea, the yacht has helped rescue nearly 15,000 refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe by boat, mostly from Libya, Mr. Camps estimated.

Today it is operated by a team of volunteer lifeguards and doctors, and uses two dinghies in its search-and-rescue missions. It is designed to take about 60 refugees on board, but carries 600 life jackets. On a single day last summer the boat’s crew helped save about 6,000 people, Mr. Camps said.

The news of the volunteer crew of the Astral spread throughout Spain, and was the subject of a recent documentary film that helped raise funds for his organization, which now has received gifts in excess of about €1 million. 

So many people feel helpless in the face of tragedy or disaster. After all, what can one person do? Oscar Camps shows us that simply taking action to help others can become contagious, that you can inspire by example. As we approach the giving season, I find it inspiring to read of the determination and bravery of this one man and how he and his brothers and sisters have given themselves to save strangers and share just a little bit of good-will with their fellow humans.

I wish you a wonderful Christmas or Hanukkah. May you gather with warmth to share the joy of the season with your loved ones. As we give gifts to friends and family, let us also remember those who give so much to help others around the world, and may they inspire us to follow their example.

If you would like to support Proactiva Open Arms and their mission, please visit their website here.