Our church’s eyeglasses mission visited the Rio San Juan region of Nicaragua for the tenth straight year in 2016.
The Rio San Juan area, the poorest region of the second poorest country in Central America, has only limited medical facilities.
Using a mobile autorefractor, the experience of our leader John, and the organizational skills of in-country citizens Rafael and optometrist Dolores, the our group of 8-12 usually sees about 1000 people.
St Mark Lutheran Church’s mission is the only opportunity for most of the region’s 30,000 population (average income $450 per year) to get their eyes examined.
Over the last 10 years, John estimates we have given out 20,000 pair of eyeglasses.
How it works
Local authorities send out radio messages announcing the St. Mark’s mission coming to a specific location.
People arrive from miles around, often early in the morning.
Once a person signs in, they are given a simple exam that determines their dominant eye.
(For volunteers like me who have limited mechanical skills and some Spanish-speaking ability, this was the perfect job. Izquierda? (Left?) Derecho? (Right?) I laughed and smiled a lot, using my hands as well)
They then visit the autorefractor, a whirring plastic contraption manned by a volunteer beaming a thin light into their eye to measuring how light changes when it bounces off the back wall of the eyeball.
The volunteer marks a number provided by the machine on the card and the patient visits John and Rafael, working together.
The two men do a physical exam, sometimes using an eye chart, and then write a prescription estimate on the card.
They direct patients with severe cataracts or pterygiums to the Managua optometrist, Dolores, who makes a professional examination.
(On years when a opthamologist travels to the region to work in a surgical ward, these folks are followed up for cataract surgery.)
Everyone proceeds with their cards to the “happy room,” (or this year, the “happy space”) to be fitted with eyeglasses.
Fitting eyeglasses onto children, men and women, is the most special part of the job.
Seeing the wonder on the faces of people who haven’t seen tree leaves or the wrinkles on their hands for years, brings joy to everyone.
Watch for it in the video below.
This year the group spent all three days in the village of Sabalo proper, working in a covered sports area.
They saw 1080 people in three days.
While the Peace Corps usually provides up to five translators, this year only one could come.
Fortunately, three of the young women had either taken Spanish in school or used it for work.
They all were amazed at how quickly vocabulary returned and they were able to communicate.
Local residents stepped in as well, the unofficial mayor of the town translated, as did a school child.
(The lone Peace Corps worker also gave a crash vocabulary course at the lodge each night!)
A lot of them were kids; giving eyeglasses to school children changes their lives for good.
The volunteers pay their way and the glasses–purchased in Nicaragua–are given away for free.
(My husband and I served on the mission in 2011. You can read all 17 of my posts about that trip starting here.)
Our group stays at Sabalos Lodge on the river, not far from the town of Sabalos.
Devotions in the evening after dinner followed by sharing the day’s adventures and remembering the happy room stories are a highlight of the trip.
The St. Mark volunteers also bring gifts for the patients.
Edna, a woman at our church, made many, many small dolls of cloth.
“They may have been the only soft toys the children ever had,” one volunteer said.
The children also receive bouncing balls and a Bible story book written in Spanish.
We also give away Bibles to anyone who wants one.
Peter, after making sure his patient could see the leaves on the trees and the wrinkles on his hands, asked him to read the opening lines of a Bible text.
The man leaned forward and began to read aloud.
“Great. Those eyeglasses seem to be working fine.”
He continued to read.
Peter doesn’t speak Spanish, so the mayor stepped in. “Alto.”
The man nodded, he had heard, but he kept reading, engrossed in seeing the Word of God for perhaps the first time.
Peter laughed. “It’s the first time I’ve ever had to ask someone to stop reading the Bible.”
The man, like so many others, was thankful to have such precious gifts–the ability to see and a Bible to read.
Thanks be to God.
Here’s a video of this year’s mission:
A 2016 eyeglass mission to Nicaragua. Click to Tweet
First time glasses: tree leaves and hand wrinkle joy! Click to Tweet
10 years, 20K pair of glasses in Nicaragua. Click to Tweet