Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Why Would Anyone?

Why would anyone who's not a Doctor of Optometry or an optician volunteer to take two weeks from their personal life/work, pay their own way halfway around the world and work in sometimes rough, filthy conditions to supply people in the developing world or disaster zones with eyeglasses?

I'm glad you asked.
My best friend, and the most inspiring person I know, is an Optometrist who has done many such trips over the last 25 years. Through him, I began volunteering to clean and sort donated eyeglasses at a Lions Club warehouse in Burnaby, BC, weekly for the Third World Eye Care Society. I was impressed by TWECS, which is entirely volunteer run and directs every penny and all resources to actually helping the neediest - not to administration or salaries. 
Charlene at Registration

In 2009, on the heels of a horrendous 40th year (and all the first-world, midlife-crisis personal drama that implies), I joined TWECS on a project in Ethiopia. It was my first visit to Africa (where I have been many times, to many countries, since) and TWECS first visit to Ethiopia. 

The trip was an incredible, eye-opening experience in so many ways. As an introvert who works at a desk job, it forced me to come face-to-face with the neediest, poorest, least-educated people I'd ever encountered - and to dig deep and find kindness and generosity in my heart when I was hot, tired and at my personal limits in every way. I discovered the best and worst I am capable of as a human being, from petty to gracious snd everything in between. 

TWECS trips allow me (a former travel writer/editor) to experience relatively remote parts of world in ways no tourist or traveler ever could. As a journalist, I am acutely aware how much my life and career depend my literacy, which depends on my good eyesight. 

Before I came to Nepal I sent a fundraising appeal to colleagues and friends, subject line: "What is you couldn't see, read or write?" My friends in the writing and media community - some who do not make a high income - were incredibly generous, with gifts of $25-$100 (I raised an incredible $2000 in total). They all realize that without the gifts of vision and literacy, none of us would have the incredible lives we do in Canada.

At home in Vancouver, my yoga teacher tells us "Namaste" means something like "the god in me salutes the god in you." With hands in prayer and a small bow, I have said it sincerely to each of hundreds of patients I've interacted with in Nepal. We have so much, and it's so easy to give. 

By Charlene Rooke

I'm Glad We've Come......
By Dr. Michael Kellam

This is my first trip with TWECS and I'm now sure it won't be my last. We've had four clinic days so far- each quite different. This is certainly a poor country facing many challenges even before the earthquake last year.  But from what I've seen, I am confident that this country and its people will get by.

 Our group has been amazed in the rural areas to see entire mountain sides terraced for farming and all of this would have been done by hand. We've seen stone houses collapsed but beside it a structure made of corrugated metal which becomes the family's new home. We've been on high mountain roads where it seems implausible that a road should be, yet there it is - even if is rather rough and scary. 

A group of children aged 3 to 8 came in together yesterday. They were laughing and giggling, each sporting big smiles throughout their visit. We had assumed they were part of the same school or daycare but we learned after they left they were from an orphanage. Their smiles certainly did not relay that fact. 
I had an 8 yo boy yesterday who was nearsighted. Everything beyond arms length was blurred. He didn't say much as he put his new glasses on, but his eyes got very big as he slowly scanned the room. A 60 year old patient yesterday required reading glasses of +7.00 - that's among the strongest we carry! With a prescription like that she hasn't seen anything closer than a meter for about 25 years. 

The needs here are obviously great and is our little group of Canadian and American OD's really doing much? There are several large government and non-government organizations trying to solve the big problems of third world countries like Nepal. In eyecare, such goals would include building optometry schools, improving the training of local eye doctors and subsidizing local labs to make glasses and cataract surgery more affordable for the local populations. Unfortunately such goals take time- often much more time than they should. 
For the areas we've been to on this trip, I believe it will be many decades before such initiatives filter down to such remote or poor regions. So, are we making a difference? Absolutely! We've haven't helped everyone, we haven't perhaps contributed much to solving the long term eyecare needs of the country, but with the thousands of glasses dispensed on this trip we've improved the quality of life, employability, and educational opportunities for thousands of Nepalese. I'm glad we've come!


  1. Wonderful to read the BLOG each day. Your team has changed the lives of all those you have treated. Great work you make the World a better place for us all.

  2. Great stories and pictures Charlene and Mike!

    Brenda T