I soon found myself back to work at a nuclear plant once again occupied with regulatory and compliance issues. Nonetheless, I can still stop, think, close my eyes, and visualize any one of them standing beside me listening to my directions to look across the room and read me the letters or symbols on an eye chart telling me “Casi no puedo ver” indicating that he could barely make out the letters on the chart. I would then find myself looking into his reddened eyes partly covered with a whitish film that was known locally as “Carnosidad” (Pterygium). This is an eye affliction that may have been caused by excessive exposure to sunlight and dust.
The gentleman like so many others had traveled some distance to participate in this free eye clinic. They may have heard about it first from Fr. Bendura or the seminarian, Gabriel, who mentioned it at every opportunity as they made their appointed visits to all the little mountain hamlets served by the parish of San Antonio De Padua. These little communities are tucked in the green hills surrounding the larger town of Montero where the clinic was to be held. They used any means of travel they could to get there. Many were able to make the trip by an old bus being careful to observe the times of arrival and departure. Some were able to catch a ride on commercial trucks that occasionally pass on the roadways near their homes. However, many more walked along the rocky pathways leading to Montero. Some of these people were obliged to wake up at 3 am in order to arrive between 7 – 8 am and wait patiently in line. They also carried woven wool Alforjas (saddle bags) holding the things they would need for the day and to bring back purchases from the many bodegas that lined the main streets of Montero.
What makes my story unique is that my wife, Hildara and I were able to realize a long standing dream of bringing one of these mission trips to her hometown, to the community where she grew up; and, where we now have a second home down by the river Marmas on the land once farmed by her father and grandfather.
VOSH mission volunteers arrived in the coastal city of Piura about an hour and 20 minutes travel time by air or a fourteen hour evening / overnight bus ride on the mostly two lane coastal Pan American Highway. Nearly everyone spent one night in Piura and then the next day, Sunday, June 20th, they were all very anxious to get going and make the trip by car or truck to Montero. The most typical of the vehicles available to them were the durable, diesel fueled, four wheeled drive Toyota station wagons. Each VOSH team member paid 20 soles (about $7) oneway.
In addition to the Chofer (driver), five passengers were either crowded into the back to ride on the thinly padded bench seat; or the preferred front passenger bucket seat while a smaller member of each car load was required to take the space in between the two front seats without a back rest and sit in such a way as to avoid the driver’s manipulation of the stick shift. The mostly paved, heavily traveled highway slowly ascends through the drier landscape and passes by orchards of mangos and limones as well as through fields of cotton, rice, and vegetables.
Hildara had already been in Piura for two days meeting each arrival, arranging hotel accommodations, and acquainting the newcomers with the city of Piura. She planned to get back to Montero as quickly as possible with some of the group so she could help to finish preparing a big dinner to celebrate the group’s arrival.
Early the next day after a quick breakfast in the restaurant/bar El Portón where we had contracted to serve our mission team three meals a day (this restaurant is owned and operated by our good friends Elsa and Ranan), we all pitched in to transform most of the second floor of the Municipal Building into an eye clinic. Hildara got extra sheets from our house and we bought plastic cord from a local hardware store. We used these materials to set up partitions between the work stations and to place over some of the windows to darken the areas that would be used for eye exams. In the well lit back of the room, the Visual Acuity (VA) testing area was set up with plastic chairs filling a waiting area facing another area large enough to allow four people at a time to attempt to read the different size letters on eye charts on the other side of the room. Many of the older adult population is illiterate; so in these cases, the charts we used had common symbols on them. In the next work area a handheld Auto Refractor was used to measure the eye and was operated by one of the Canadian Optometry students. Next there were four areas, one for each Optometrist to conduct exams with the assistance of one of the students. The final area was where the eyeglasses were dispensed and adjusted.
The next several days would prove to be one of the most rewarding and busiest periods of my life. I would be fulfilling many roles from “gopher”, to translator, to host as well as a selfappointed good will ambassador. I liked working in the VA area assisting the people as they attempted to read the smallest letters or symbols on the eye charts. As a translator, my most difficult task was to explain to a few people that we could not help them with their vision needs, at least not entirely, as they needed surgery for cataracts or to remove the tissue growth that was obscuring their vision. I was amazed at how graciously the majority of the people took the bad news when I had to convey it to them.
One afternoon, Gabriel arranged for a pick-up game of Fútbol (soccer) and several of our younger group members participated. After awhile some of local girls from the sidelines persuaded the soccer players to switch to volleyball. A recognition ceremony was held on Thursday evening for us. The City Administrator read and gave us copies of proclamations formally recognizing each of us as “Distinguished Visitors” for the work we had done to help the poor people of the area improve their vision. The official ceremony was followed by school children performing traditional dances and demonstrating how sugar cane is harvested and processed into the wonderful Panela (a rich, pure brown sugar). We were each given large samples of coffee and sugar – the two principal organic products grown locally.
I requested and was given the opportunity to address the school children and tried to make myself understood in my sometimes faltering Spanish. I told them that one should not feel embarrassed or ashamed if told that they need to wear glasses and to celebrate the opportunity to see clearer. For me, this was a partial of repayment for a time when I was young and my Dad struggled to find work after the nearby Iron mines closed. He could ill afford to buy eye glasses for three to four children who all seemed to need them at once. My first pair of glasses was provided for me by the Lions Club.
Friday was our final half day of our mission. When it was completed at noon, we had provided eye examinations for about 1,800 people. Many of the older Tejedoras (weavers) who can now once again see to thread a needle.
When I started out to write this, one thing came to mind; that this experience was “a Real Eye-Opener for me”. As trite as it may sound, it is true that I became acutely aware of what a difference people can make by not discarding their used glasses and frames; the difference a few optometrists can make by generously donating some of their time and professional expertise; the opportunities for optometric students to practice; and lay volunteers to learn by assisting in these missions. True to the stated mission of VOSH, together they are helping to “Bring the World into Focus”. And, Hildara and I were able to bring the VOSH volunteers to “our own” remote corner of the world Montero, Peru.
Submitted by Doug Blakesley
I felt a hand on my shoulder as I was assisting a young lady find a pair of glasses. I turned around and saw an older Peruvian lady looking at me with a huge smile on her face. She was less that 4’ tall and it was clear from her rugged face she was at least 60 years old. Her cotton dress was well pressed and I was sure she was wearing her very best outfit. I remembered that I had fitted glasses on her the day before. She held out 2 of the largest avocados I have ever seen. She said in Spanish, “for you Senor, thank you for the glasses. I am now able to sew and cook and read the newspaper with my new glasses”. I took the avocados and gave her a few coins in payment. We took a picture together and she turned and left our clinic. Somehow I knew we would never forget each other.
This is just one of the memorable moments for me as I was working with a VOSH-MN team in Montero, Peru in June of 2010. Every day there were new experiences. All of the local people we
served expressed their gratitude in so many ways. Some are shy and will only shake your hand.
Others are more outgoing and will give you a huge hug. It is a very humbling experience to be able to assist people who have not been able to see to read, cook, sew or make simple repairs around their house. I first learned about the work of VOSH from my late parents, Walter and Margaret Gilseth, who made several VOSH missions in the early 1980s. I lived in east Africa as a youth so I thought that the cultural difference between the USA and a third world country would not be too much to handle. However, the famous line from the movie “Wizard of Oz” came to mind as soon as we arrived in Montero, Peru “Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas any more”. So, if a person is open minded and tolerant of all of the cultural differences you will experience, the work of a VOSH team member will be a very humbling and rewarding experience!
I plan to volunteer again next year and I hope that my wife will be able to join us.
Submitted by Steve Gilseth
Other participants on this mission included: Dr. Greg, Ann, Ben, Bette, Zach Friederichs, Bob Boeding, Jan Cartwright, Allison and Holger Ebert, Dr. Anna Ellsesser, Ken and Maggie Gross, Karley Guse, Jennifer Guy, Dr. Kris Hill, Steven Hoang, Alexa Lavigne, Melissa Macco, John Paul Meggeridge, Julie Moorhead, Darcey Robbin, Dale Simmons, Neal Thornbloom, Dr. Julie Walsh, Joyce Wurl.