Volunteers reap rewards - in smiles
Written by W. Evan Golder
August - September 2006
September 1, 2006

Salvadoran vision clinic serves thousands, founded by UCC ophthalmologist

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

Once people registered, they 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 to the next station, where a member of the Evangelical Free Church, an optometrist, determined the best care they could give that patient. After that came near vision testing by a Jewish volunteer.

At that point, patients would be sent to different stations: some to be fitted for reading glasses by a Southern Baptist, some to refractions where a Missionary Alliance volunteer determined the best strength of eyeglass for each patient, some to have prescription glasses dispensed by a Presbyterian, some to have a glass eye fitted by a UCC member, and some for a consultation by an Episcopalian physician. A few would be slated for surgery by a Roman Catholic.

Altogether 57 U.S. and Canadian 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 situated at 4,000 feet in the northeastern mountains of El Salvador. This non-denominational ministry was founded 18 years ago by Bill Brinker, a member of Kent (Ohio) UCC and an ophthalmologist; his wife, Grace; and a few friends.

During the two-week stint, 4,123 patients registered for assistance. The majority were farmers, domestics, day laborers, students and old-age pensioners. Most received help of some kind: reading glasses, sun glasses, prescription glasses, cataract surgery or even a false eye. Many of these persons 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.

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

The volunteers were amazed at how appreciative these peasant people were. Some had walked for two hours in the dark to catch an early morning bus before transferring to an open truck. Then they stood or sat 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 of First Presbyterian Church in 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 enjoy what they do, whether it's 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 member of First United Methodist Church of Sharon, Pa. "I go back much more revived than when I arrived."

"It's a real lift for me," says Bill Brinker. "I have a skill that meets a need. I enjoy this much more than I would spending my vacation sitting on a beach somewhere."

This sense of social obligation was not uncommon among the volunteers.

"I feel I have to give back for all the blessings I've received," says 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 Bill Hoos, an optician for 30 years and a member of Waynesboro (Pa.) United Presbyterian Church. "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 wide-spread community support. Thirteen groups welcomed the volunteers to Perquin. Here 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.

"These mission trips are important because people here don't have access to even simple health care," says Darrell Holland, a retired UCC minister from Cleveland. "And even if it were available, people probably couldn't afford it anyway."

"I feel Christ would have done this," says Dave Brinker, an ophthalmologist and member of Mayflower Congregational UCC in Oklahoma City, "and I try to follow Christ."

The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News. He and his wife, Deborah, a registered nurse, volunteered in this year's eye care mission trip. 

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Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3801
guessb@ucc.org