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HER dreams

VISIONS OF THE RAINFOREST

Erie eye doctor climbing mountains to bring vision to the Third World

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ive-year-old Marianito watches the heavy plane rumble over the crowded slums and high-rise hotels of Guatemala City to the airport wedged inside this city of 3 million people. His eyes light up as he throws his arms around the tall, wiry man with curly hair, wondering if there’s a gift inside his backpack and looking past him to see if Anthony has come, too. “No, not this time, buddy,” says Erie eye doctor, Doug Villella, whose son, the same age as Marianito, stayed home with his mom, Holly, and sister Amanda. Soon Marianito’s father and uncle, opthalmologists Mariano and Nicholas Yee, will board a smaller plane with Doug, their duffle bags stuffed with medical supplies, bulging containers of eye glasses and equipment waiting on the tarmac. They will go deep into the rain forest of the Petén, where they and a small group of volunteers from VOSH/PA, the Pennsylvania chapter of Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, will see 3,700 people in five days, some who have walked six hours just to stand in line. For 36 years, a violent civil war, ending in 1996, drove many families to the remote regions of the Petén where there is a measure of safety, but no access to medical care. They say Villella can move mountains, but he will climb them, too, if it will bring him one step closer to helping blind children see in the rainforest of Guatemala. For the past 10 years, Doug has worked with a team of Guatemalan doctors to energize a core group of volunteers commandeer equipment and

“They say he can move mountains, but he will climb them, too, if it will bring him one step closer to helping blind children see in the rainforest of Guatemala.” supplies, establish strategic partnerships around the globe, and raise $2.3 million to build three, sustainable eye clinics for the rural poor in Guatemala. Today, the clinics, which now employ five opthalmologists, including one who specializes in pediatrics, two optometrists, and dozens of health care workers, see 50,000 patients and perform 3,000 cataract surgeries every year. Together they provide more than 50 percent of all the eye care in Guatemala in what has become a demonstration project for all of Latin America. Talk about dreaming big? This local doctor hopes to eliminate childhood blindness in Guatemala by the year 2012. And he’s already talking about expanding the program to Haiti. Since 1997, VOSH/PA with its team of volunteer eye care professionals and others, has conducted 21 mission trips to Guatemala, examined more than 235,000 patients, dispensed 160,000 pair of eyeglasses, and provided for 16,455 sight-saving surgeries. Guatemalans have been trained to continue vision screenings. “By empowering local eye-care specialists in

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30 • Her Times • August 12, 2007 • Dreaming Big

developing countries, by building sustainable eye clinics, and by establishing partnerships with like-minded organizations, you can transform the Third World,” says Doug, who has generated much of his support from the Erie region. The Erie and Meadville Lions clubs, Erie Rotary, other local eye doctors and dozens of Erie area people have contributed time, talent and money to the project. Grace Ward, a 104year-old woman from Erie, is the program’s single largest benefactor. With investment capital from other project partners, Guatemalan women have started their own micro-businesses to supply low-cost eyeglasses to their neighbors. The Guatemala project earned a national People First Award from VSP in 2005, and the Humanitarian of the Year Award from VOSH International in 2006. The numbers are impressive, and the awards are, too, but the story is best told through the people whose lives are forever changed by the gift of sight.

• A spectacled 12-year-old, Oswal Donis, sits at

a computer in his humble cement-block home six months after surgeons removed shards lodged in his eye from a bottle rocket accident. A hard lesson learned after playing with fireworks, but now, his mom boasts, he is first in his class. He says he wants to be a teacher. • A handsome man with wavy gray hair breaks into a huge smile when his bandages are removed a few days after cataract surgery. His wife is more beautiful than he imagined. After 20 years of marriage, he’s seeing her for the first time. +

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Mount Kilimanjaro Climb for Sight

Mik e Sp arks

Adventure seekers can read more about The Mount Kilimanjaro Climb for Sight, founded in 2000 by another Erie native, Chuck “Lucky” Patton, in an advertisement in this month’s issues of National Geographic Adventure, Backpacker and Outside magazines. The next climb will be named in honor of Patton, who died of cancer in 2006. So far the climb has contributed $205,000 to fund sight-saving surgeries for 1,000 children.

(DID YOU KNOW? That 44 percent of

Guatemalans are under the age of 15? These girls (at left) wait for their first eye exam in the village of Dolores.

Guatem alan g irls

wait fo r an ex am uatemala G m o r f Greetings 5VOLUNTEERS, above, arrive

Rufino Garcia and family at home

at the Vincent Pescatore Eye Clinic in San Benito. They will see 3,700 people in five days. Dr. Villella is third from the left in the front row.

P Read more about the Guatemala project at www.voshpa.org

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five children, all clad in protective sunglasses and ball caps. Soon he will be sorting through barrels of dried corn, saving the best kernels for the flour he will grind for tortillas. Like most of Guatemala’s rural poor, he is a subsistence farmer. He depends on good eyesight to eat. • Betya, age 10, was completely blind in both eyes and couldn’t attend school until she had bilateral cataract surgery at the clinic in San Benito. “Children are especially vulnerable,” says Doug. “They get their first machete by the age of 7, they work long hours unprotected in the hot sun, and many of them suffer from conditions they were born with, like congenital glaucoma and congenital cataracts.” Without the benefit of early “ I’ve learned that intervention and surgery, these something like this conditions go untreated, says Doug. “Some of the people with cataracts needs a driver. No reach adulthood without ever knowing matter what the that their blindness can be treated obstacle, you drive with surgery,” he added. around it. Now we Now that the clinics are selfsufficient, Doug and his team are have a committed working to establish a $2.5 million team of humanitarian endowment that will ensure the doctors down there, project continues long after they the facilities are in hand over the keys. An estimated place, and everyone 4,000 children still need surgical is empowered. There care, and thousands more need prescription eyeglasses. is no possibility of This month Doug is focusing on it failing.” “The Mount Kilimanjaro Climb for Sight,” a challenging, 11-day trip to — Doug Villella, O.D., the top of the highest, freestanding president of VOSH/PA mountain in the world. Held every year in August and January, the event funds eye surgeries for children in Guatemala and could hold the key to the permanent endowment that will keep the clinics running, long into the future. “These climbers are realizing a lifetime dream to summit Mount Kilimanjaro and in doing so they are opening a door for the children in Guatemala to realize their dream for sight,” says Doug. “By securing sponsorships and fundraising for kids, you do two wonderful things at once — you get a full African experience climbing a mountain and a safari, and you carry 30 to 40 children to the top of the mountain with you.”

Pho tos by

• Rufino Garcia straightens his new prescription bifocals and gathers up his

Her Times • August 12, 2007 • Dreaming Big • 31


Visions of the Rainforest