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Volunteer work ‘lifts’ their spirits
02 May 2006
by W. Evan Golder

When the eye-care volunteers arrived at about 7:30 a.m., the line of people waiting to register for eye exams stretched halfway around the village public square. Some men shaded their eyes with sombreros. Many older women wore short, frilly aprons over their dresses.

After registering, the patients crossed the square to the first station, under an awning in the parish church’s basketball court. Here a Lutheran volunteer blocked one eye at a time on each patient, while a Methodist flipped the eye chart and a Church of God member recorded the results. Charts in hand, the patients moved inside the church, where an Evangelical Free Church member, an optometrist, determined the best care that patient could receive. After that came near-vision testing by a Jewish volunteer.

At that point, patients were sent to various stations: some to be fitted for reading glasses by a Southern Baptist; some to have a Missionary Alliance volunteer determine the best strength of eyeglasses; some to have prescription glasses dispensed by a Presbyterian; some to have a glass eye fitted by a member of the United Church of Christ (UCC); and some for a consultation by an Episcopalian physician.

Altogether, 57 volunteers, including 10 eye-care professionals, three other physicians and three nurses, participated in this year’s February mission trip by Eye Care International. The destination was Perquin, a small village at 4,000 feet in the north-eastern mountains of El Salvador. A nondenominational ministry, Eye Care International was founded 18 years ago by ophthalmologist Bill Brinker, a UCC member from Ohio, his wife, Grace, and a few friends.

During the two-week stint, 4,123 patients registered for assistance. Most were farmers, domestics, day labourers, students and old-age pensioners. Most received help: reading glasses, sunglasses, prescription glasses, cataract surgery or even a false eye. Many can now see something they haven’t seen in years – such as the blossoms on a bougainvillea bush or the smile on a grandchild’s face.

Amazing gratitude

Why would people volunteer to give up two weeks of vacation and pay $550 and airfare to a foreign country to work for nothing? For three primary reasons: gratitude, enjoyment and service, according to the volunteers.

They reported being amazed at the gratitude these peasant people showed. Some had travelled for four hours, walking a half hour in the dark to catch an early morning bus before transferring to an open truck. Then they stood with great dignity in long lines and waited to be tested.  “It’s instant gratification when you put a pair of glasses on someone and they see something they haven’t seen in a long time,” says Mary Lou Riegel, a Presbyterian from Ridgway, Pa.

“We first saw them with frowns on their faces,” says Chris Kaufman, an Episcopalian and professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “After surgery, they came back with broad grins.” Despite the long hours, volunteers enjoyed what they did, whether it was testing vision, fitting glasses or assisting in surgery. “I get far more out of it than I put into it,” says Bob Means, an optician and a Methodist from Sharon, Pa. “I go back much more revived than when I arrived.”

“It’s a real lift for me,” says Bill Brinker from Kent, Ohio. “I have a skill that meets a need. I enjoy this much more than I would spend my vacation sitting on a beach somewhere.” Many volunteers say they feel a sense of social obligation. “I feel I have to give back for all the blessings I’ve received,” says ophthalmologist Tom Cliffel, a member of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Parish in Cleveland who performed 91 eye surgeries in nine days.

“There’s a giving back that’s owed by business people,” says Presbyterian Bill Hoos of Waynesboro, Pa., an optician for 30 years. “It’s better to give than to receive.”

Eye Care International’s annual February two-week trips go to the poorest areas of El Salvador, and only if they are invited and have widespread community support. Thirteen groups welcomed the volunteers to Perquin. There, they contributed around $828,000 in medical services – 33 times the dollars the volunteers paid to go on the trip.
Pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and individuals contributed drugs, money and equipment.

“This trip makes me realize that there are other ways to serve than what my local church offers,” says Amy Loar, a Lutheran from Falls Church, Va., who came with her husband and teenage son. “I feel Christ would have done this,” says Dave Brinker, an ophthalmologist and a UCC member from Oklahoma City, “and I try to follow Christ.”