Charlie Davis’ vacations aren’t what you would call typical. The local Lions Club member has travelled to remote regions of South America for 11 years, sometimes up to twice a year, with clubs from across the region, including the St. Jacobs Lions Club. Once Davis has landed, there’s no time for lying by the pool or catching up on reading, there are too many patients to see and lives to change.
Lions Club International has been running the “Recycle for Sight” program for more than two decades, gathering donated glasses and sending them to developing nations to bring sight to people who could otherwise not afford it. The St. Jacobs club collects and sorts thousands of pairs from across the region every three months. After the glasses are sorted, and any broken pairs are discarded or donated to the University of Waterloo optometry program, the glasses are shipped to Alberta to be refurbished and redistributed to clubs headed to developing nations across the globe.
“We saw 982 patients in four days,” Davis said of his trip last November. “We’re working in the villages in the mountains most of the time or in the rural areas of the low lands and we’re seeing the people who are the poorest of the poor.”
Davis travels mainly to Guatemala and El Salvador, but other clubs travel to a variety of places, including India and Nepal. Although he hasn’t got much time for sipping tropical drinks or sightseeing, Davis says he wouldn’t trade the rewarding experiences of his mission work for anything. He describes a 17-year-old girl, her sight so bad she could barely see her own hand, whom he helped to find glasses.
“I remember putting them on her face and they were lopsided, so I went to take them off to adjust them for her and she wouldn’t let me have them,” a tear comes to Davis’ eye when he recalls the gratefulness of the girl. “That child saw her mother for the first time in her life.”
Lions Clubs are not the only groups bringing sight to other nations, but Davis credits their repeat success to their efficiency. Working with not only local clubs like St. Jacobs, but with doctors in the countries they travel to, the Lions minimize the amount of downtime they experience to see the most patients they can.
“The one thing that a lot of folks do is they go and they don’t have a lot of people on the ground. If you don’t have anybody on the ground the missions don’t work because you have a lot of wasted time and you don’t see as many people as you want to.”
Living far from medical care, many of the locals would have to give up two or more days’ earnings to see a physician. The clinics ensure they are looked after.
“A lot of these people earn their living by sewing or knitting and if they can’t see, they can’t earn any money,” Davis said. “If you put a pair of glasses on someone’s face it’s bliss for them. Without groups like ours, these people would never see.”
Not every case is as easy as finding the perfect pair of glasses. Davis remembers a small boy blinded by glaucoma whose sight could not be restored by surgeons accompanying the group. Optometrists travelling on the missions are charged with diagnosing the patients and performing surgeries for cataracts and other diseases affecting sight. In January, while travelling with a club from Portland, Maine, Davis’ group performed 82 cataract corrections in under a week.
The group relies on community donations of glasses, which can be made at any optometry office in the region. The glasses are retrieved by Lions members like Erik Westermann,a 28-year-vetern of the St. Jacobs club, where members spend about six hours every three months sorting the spectacles for the program. Westermann has been collecting and sorting the glasses for about 10 years.
“It’s all volunteer,” he said. “I’d say it’s a hundred thousand we pick up.”
Glasses are largely donated by those who have gotten newer pairs, but Westermann said the group also collects glasses from funeral homes in cases where they’ve been donated by families.
“They never bury a person with glasses on, and we get the glasses.”
For all the members involved in the “Recycle for Sight” program is close to their hearts.
“One of the mandates of the Lions is to eradicate preventable blindness in the world,” Davis said.