Mission to Mexico improves vision for hundreds
King City Lions are part of annual humanitarian trip
Mary Thibert remembers an incident from a Lions Club International humanitarian trip to Mexico two years ago when a father carried in his 8-year-old daughter who had had three eye surgeries but was blind.
The girl refused to walk because she constantly tripped and fell, and when she was carried into the Lions' makeshift clinic, she screamed because she thought she was going to have another surgery.
One of the volunteers, Mary Lee Turner, gave the girl a giant Teddy bear and told her that she only wanted to help, not hurt her. Mary Lee showed the girl how to use a cane, and 20 minutes later the girl was confidently running around using it.
"She was gripping it tight so no one would take it away from her," Mary said.
While most of the people who are given eyeglasses at the annual clinics don't have such dramatic stories, each one is grateful to be able to see the world with improved vision.
Mary, a King City resident, and Rupert Fixott, who lives in the Highlands, were the only two local people among 29 Lions club members who made the Nov. 1-11 trip to Mexico that included members from other metro area and Alberta, Canada, clubs.
The Lions clubs have made the trip to Mexico every year except 2010 for the past 12 years, and this was Rupert's second trip and Mary's third.
"This was a small team - we usually have about 35 people," she said.
The clinics are set up in different areas each year, and the 2012 trip took place in Aguas Calientes in the eastern Guadalajara district, which is a high-desert area at 6,200 feet that has not had any rain for three years.
A lot of work goes on behind the scenes before each trip takes place. The first step is collecting the eyeglasses, and the Lions have a large collection box that looks like a mailbox outside McCann's Pharmacy & Gifts in King City, plus other containers in local businesses.
The eyeglasses are sent to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, where 12 inmates are trained each year to repair them and determine the prescription for the right eye; each pair is put in a marked bag and sent to the Oregon Lions Sight and Hearing Foundation in Northwest Portland to be stored.
"We meet there several weeks before we go on a trip to categorize the eyeglasses by the strength of the prescription, and we can put more than 100 pairs in a box," Mary said. "We pack the boxes in totes and put gifts around the extra space like baseball caps and neckties for the men and yarn, embroidery thread and costume jewelry for the women.
"We also put in Beanie Babies and McDonald's toys for the kids, and we try to include toothbrushes and toothpaste for everyone we see. And we take down as many bags with pens, pencils and hotel toiletries as we can."
For the November trip, the Lions club members carried 38 large totes that included more than 8,000 pairs of eyeglasses, of which 1,950 were actually distributed; the rest were left with Mexico Lions club members to hand out, according to Rupert.
The clinic was set up in a brand-new theater in the town of Pabellon, and 350 to 400 people were seen each day, he added.
"We started at 8 a.m. and ended when we were through," Mary said. "People were brought in by the busload and would wait in line for hours.
"Usually the local Lions there set things up and work with the Mexican government social services agencies. We used interpreters to have them look at an eye chart and to ask if they wanted their blood pressure checked as well as have a blood test for diabetes. A nurse from Chicago did the diabetes tests, and one of the Lions did the blood pressure checks - the numbers were off the charts. All we could do was counsel them about diet and to see a doctor."
If people only needed glasses for close-up use such as reading or sewing, they were directed to a table with reader glasses.
If people needed help with distance vision, they were directed to an ophthalmologist who did exams.
"On the eye chart, the third line down from the top is 20/60, and if people couldn't read the smaller letters, we would send them to the doctor," Mary said. "I've had ladies walk up to 5 feet from the chart and couldn't see the big E. An hour later they were reading the chart with their new glasses and crying."
Mary added, "We had several people who were totally blind, and we gave them sunglasses. We took 47 white canes with us and had two ladies trained to teach people how to use them, which gave them more mobility.
"There will be a few people each year that we can't fit - they are far-sighted in one eye and near-sighted in the other, for instance, so the Lions will pay a local optician to make them glasses or take the prescription home and try to get it filled here."
Rupert was one of three people who adjusted the frames after people were given eyeglasses with the right prescriptions,
"This year I did the gifts," Mary said. "Everyone would get a gift bag, plus they could choose an item from the table to take home. I've done various different things - last time it was fitting the glasses, and one year I did the eye chart.
"It was very exhausting. They would bring in food for us for lunch and dinner, and we would usually be done by 7 or 8 p.m. Then we had a 45-minute ride back to the hotel, but it was so rewarding."
Whatever their job, everyone who makes the trip feels very rewarded, according to Rupert and Mary.
"We've had people 100 years old who have never had eyeglasses," Mary said, and Rupert added, "Most of the people were so appreciative. We heard 'Gracias' all day long, and some would hug us."
Lions club member pay their own way to participate in the clinics, although the King City Lions Club contributed $500 each to Mary and Rupert to help defray their expenses.
"Part of the reason I did it was to see a different part of Mexico, and also I wanted to do something for others," Rupert said. "The reward is seeing their faces light up when they can see.
Mary said, "I want to go every year as long as I can. Most people who go do it over and over - I get more out of than the recipients do. The glow on their faces is the reward."
Back home, the Lions are always happy to set up eyeglass donation boxes in new places, such as churches, because every pair helps and might be just the right fit for someone.
"Between February and October 2012 we collected more than 3,000 pairs of eyeglasses," Mary said. "Those included 1,150 readers and 750 pairs of sunglasses. We also collect hearing aids and cell phones.
"We welcome anybody to come along on the trips - they don't have to be a Lion - and we especially welcome optometrists. And the Lions always have projects like this, so we need more members, especially younger ones."
Rupert, who is a retired dentist, added, "When I saw the long lines, I was glad it was vision and not dental problems."
For more information on the King City Lions Club or its vision and hearing projects, call President Bill Gerkin at 503-332-4550.