By Karen Mahoney
Special to Your Catholic Herald
The lines were long. Hundreds of people waited for hours in 90-degree heat. It was their chance to get their eyes examined, probably for the first time. And maybe they would receive a pair of glasses to help correct their vision.
A group of volunteers from St. Anne in Pleasant Prairie and St. Mary Parish in Kenosha spent a week giving the gift of sight to residents of Sabana Yegua, a small city in the southwest corner of the Dominican Republic, about 75 miles west of Santo Domingo.
Led by Deacon Wilson Shierk of St. Mary Parish, the group of 16, including Dr. Peter Emer, a Kenosha optometrist and member of St. Anne, made their third and most successful trip to La Sagrada Familia, the archdiocesan sister parish in the Dominican Republic.
Since 1982, the friendship between the archdiocese and the parish has resulted in building and staffing medical facilities for the small community in the Province of Azua, the poorest and most arid zone of the Dominican Republic. Fr. Oriol Regales and Fr. Marti Colom, pastors of La Sagrada Familia, are responsible for the pastoral and practical needs of the community.
“On the first trip, we were able to examine 220 people, the second 330 and this most recent, 556,” said Emer. “In my profession, one of the most rewarding aspects, especially on such a mission trip, where donated prescription glasses are on site, is that we can put the glasses on a Dominican patient right away, and see immediate results.”
According to Emer, of the 556 people examined, 510 needed glasses. They had the proper prescriptions for 420 thanks to a donation from the Lions Club of Greater Kenosha.
“So 420 Dominicans walked out of the clinic with a smile on their face,” he said, adding, “My wife Kim especially benefited from this, because she was the one who adjusted the glasses at the end of the clinic stations.”
The days were long
Mission volunteers woke early each morning to travel to the clinic and prepare supplies for the day. By 7:30 a.m. they started seeing patients who had lined up at the door hours earlier.
There were so many people trying to get into the clinic that the volunteers worked many days until 9 p.m., said Emer, who enlisted two interns from the Illinois College of Optometry to assist in the examinations. In addition, Emer was successful in procuring a $9,300 grant from Lions Club International Foundation.
“This LCIF grant money will enable us to have about 20 to 30 Dominicans receive cataract surgery,” he said. “These are Dominicans who we could not help with glasses.”
Increase in eye disease
Eye diseases are on the rise in the impoverished country, according to Deacon Shierk.
“They are caused by poor sanitary conditions and unclean water,” he said, adding, “And the hot sun damages their eyes over time when they are not protected.”
Adding to the poor conditions was the damage done last fall by Tropical Storm Noel which destroyed homes, washed out roads, and washed away topsoil crucial for the farming community of 50,000 residents.
“About 90 percent of the people make their living via agriculture,” Deacon Shierk said. “And in addition to ruining farm land, the storm stripped the soil of vegetation; that created further erosion.”
Already living a fragile and meager existence with no running water or bathroom facilities, the Dominicans rarely have a full day of electricity. For Deacon Shierk, the opportunity to serve was a chance to slow his pace and observe.
“Most of us, at least I do, operate on what I call ‘fast forward.’ Watching the patience of adults waiting hours to see the doctor about their eyes has taught me to be less in a hurry and to better notice the image of Jesus, that often busy people miss, in the faces and actions of many others,” he said. “Also, for a people who have so little, these people in the Dominican Republic seem to be very welcoming and grateful. Celebrating liturgy there is a moving experience. During the exchange of peace (at Mass) it takes 15 minutes for all the people to show their loving concern for others and for us as visitors.”
Seeing face of God
Also touched by each of the mission trips, Emer said that his faith has been affected in that he also can see the face of God in the faces he encounters each day.
“For example, we toured the barrios one afternoon and saw the remnants of Noel damage. Houses that had been filled with mud four feet high, rotted mattresses, lost crops,” he said. “But when we spoke to the people, they were just happy to be alive. I caught myself, when performing an eye exam, checking where in Sabana Yegua the Dominican was from – was he or she from one of the barrios where the hurricane had especially ravaged homes? And I was able to just catch my breath, as I began to do the eye exam and especially see in that person the face of survival, hope, the face of someone who has nothing of any material value, but who is happy to just be alive.”
Clothes, school supplies needed
In addition to providing eye exams and glasses, the volunteers each brought 50 pounds of children’s clothing and school supplies. The two parishes collected so many items, that many of the donations will be reserved for next year’s trip.
“We have seen extreme poverty first hand,” said Emer, “and we will never be the same because of it. One intern from the optometry school wept when helping to feed one of the malnourished children at the nutrition center.”
The other intern was happy to show a patient how his glasses will improve his very poor eyesight. According to Emer, the patient had a very strong prescription of -5 units, which he never had before.
“When she showed the power to the person, the reaction on the patient’s face said it all, and that intern also couldn’t help but to tear up,” he said. “So many people will never be the same because of the trip. I feel mainly because we’ll have that attitude that ‘it’s good to be alive.'”
The repeat mission trips have brought positive change to the community. In addition to providing better eye care, clothing and school supplies, Deacon Shierk is pleased with other transformations.
“They have a new nutritional center with a doctor to nourish small children, ages 1 through 5, a nurse to assist at the mission, pharmacies in some villages and a clinic in Sabana Yegua,” he said. “They have also learned about new crops to diversify their agriculture, new toilets to create a better sanitary situation, large ovens to bake bread and introduce a new industry, financial help from many sources to improve general health, and new chapels for religious services and protection against violent weather.”
For Emer, the changes offer hope that the community, with the assistance of Fr. Regales and Fr. Colom, will reverse the cycle of poverty.
“I hope that through our service in the eye clinic and the service of so many other Milwaukee area parishes that visit, that the Dominicans know that we are with them in spirit,” he said.