Jobson Employees Bring Clear Vision to Cambodia and Bhutan

By
By Christie Walker

OUDONG, CAMBODIA—The heat was oppressive…95 degrees with 80 percent humidity. I sat under a red canopy with pairs of readers from RestoringVision.org arranged neatly on the make-shift table. The sweat ran off me like a waterfall as I waited for the local people—who never seemed to sweat at all—to bring their parents and grandparents.

  Jobson’s Christie Walker uses an eye chart to determine proper add power. Photo by Lori Long.
I’d come to Cambodia to participate in the Habitat for Humanity Khmer Harvest Build with over 300 other volunteers from around the world. We were there to build 22 houses for families that used to live at the Steung Meanchey dumpsite outside of Phnom Penh. Teaming up with the non-profit RestoringVision.org in the U.S., I had carried 350 pairs of readers 8,194 miles to distribute to those in need. My biggest concern was getting the word out. The build site was an hour bus ride from the city. There were no phones, T.V., Internet, Facebook or Tweeting out in the countryside. How were we going to spread the word to the people at the build sight and in the surrounding village that I was providing free readers? In hindsight, I needn’t have worried. As Jimmy Buffet would say, you can hear it on the coconut telegraph.

At first, a few people showed up. They were all too young to need readers. I had to have an interpreter explain the purpose of these particular glasses. Then word spread like a wildfire pushed by Santa Ana winds and within five minutes I was swarmed by dozens of people. At first, people were picking up glasses and trying them on without waiting for instructions. I didn’t need an interpreter to understand what was going on when a myop put on a pair of +3.00s, looked out at the landscape and made an awful face. I took off his glasses, perched them on my nose, and then pantomimed how the glasses were to be used. Until the interpreters organized the crowd into lines, it was pure chaos. I made the mistake of putting my prescription sunglasses down on the table. At the end of the day they were gone. I’d have loved to have seen the person who tried on those glasses with my progressive lenses.

 
  A local mom shows off her new glasses to her daughter. Photo by Lori Long.
Using the reading charts I had downloaded and printed from the RestoringVision.org site, I was able to determine which power lenses they needed, with the help of an interpreter. With so many people, I needed to train two of the interpreters on how to determine what power to hand out. Once they got the hang of it, things went much smoother.

Once the power was determined, I could then fit them with a more appropriate style—black metal or brown Zyl frames for the men and colorful Zyl or a stylish semi-rimless for the women. The variety of styles provided in each power made it easy to please everyone. Although I did have one village elder who, when I tried to give him a pair of black metal frames, insisted on a pair of green and tortoise women’s frames instead. Actually, they didn’t look too bad on him.

I spent two and a half hours distributing approximately 150 pairs of readers. Many of the younger people asked for a pair for their mother or grandmother. They would tell me the age of their parent or grandmother and I would have to guess at the power based on the age—a horrible way to dispense glasses but I figured something was better than nothing. The extra 175 pair of glasses was donated to a local clinic, where I’m sure they had a more precise way of determining the prescription needed. The people were so grateful, offering words of thanks and prayerful hands in respect. My favorite moments came when a face would light up with a huge smile when they realized that the glasses actually worked. They said a word that sounded like “bong” to me, which meant “good.” And I received many thumbs up, letting me know we had found the right power for them.

 
Reader recipients give blessings to Mark Mattison-Shupnick in Bhutan. Photo by Ilene Mattison-Shupnick.
Another Jobson employee, Mark Mattison-Shupnick, director of education and training at Jobson, also took glasses on a trip to Bhutan. A founding board member of RestoringVision.org and a licensed optician, Mark had a different experience.

“I gave glasses to anyone that seemed to be old enough—I quickly assessed whether they were near sighted and let them know that I did not have glasses for them. In many cases, our guide and driver assisted with translation. All recognized what the glasses were for but needed to be counseled that their distance vision would be blurred so glasses were for close work,” said Mattison-Shupnick.

Because he was not on a medical mission or with some other philanthropic organization of some sort, it was more difficult to find ways to distribute the glasses. “Mostly we found folks that were outside the capital Thimphu and monks in monasteries. I also visited the ophthalmology department at the Referral Hospital in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. I left about 150 pair of assorted powers for the clinic to give to patients that they were seeing,” said Mattison-Shupnick.

 
A recipient in Bhutan tests out the power of his new readers. Photo by Ilene Mattison-Shupnick.
Since its inception, RestoringVision.org has helped distribute over 1.3 million pairs of readers and sunglasses around the world via volunteers going on missions to developing countries or domestic groups serving the underprivileged. Signing up was easy through the website and the cost of the frames—50 cents a pair—made it very affordable to purchase the 300 pair of glasses (50 additional pairs were thrown in at no additional cost.) The most challenging aspect of the project was lugging 350 pairs of glasses in carry on, changing planes, buses, vans and taxis. The customs in China questioned why I had so many glasses, but I had paper work from RestoringVision.org documenting that the glasses were a donation. I thought it was amusing that the Chinese didn’t want me selling the glasses in China, although ironically many of the frames were probably made there.

Overall, the experience was extremely rewarding and easy to do. I highly recommend contacting www.RestoringVision.org if you have a trip planned overseas or a group project here in the States.

Christie Walker is the Editor of LabTalk www.Labtalkonline.com as well as a Contributing Editor to Vision Monday. She can be reached at cwalker@jobson.com.