My name is Amber Fournier, I am a Registered Optician from Sudbury, ON. In April 2016, I travelled to Nairobi, Kenya with an ICU nurse named Suzanne Harvey and my friend and former colleague, Kylie Keyes, a recent nursing grad, both from Sudbury. We stayed and volunteered at a children’s home called ‘Zawadi La Tumaini’ (Swahili meaning ‘Gift of Hope’) which was started by a young girl from Sudbury named Jacqueline Villeneuve.
We collected donated eyeglasses for months before our trip and together we cleaned, changed nose pads, neutralized, bagged, tagged & catalogued each pair. We grouped them by power and into groups of SV, Readers, Bifocal & Progressives & put them into numbered Ziploc freezer bags in bundles of 25. This proved to be very time consuming, but VERY helpful when we were in the field as we were able to quickly & effectively find the proper strength of glasses for the patient.
We were very fortunate to have a portable autorefractor (smartphone based called the SVone by Smart Vision Labs) donated by Plastic Plus labs in Toronto. We spent 2 days in a place called ‘Soweto’, one of the largest slums in Kenya, working out of the Chiefs office, which was a tin shack, with dirt floors, one desk and a few wooden benches. We were welcomed into their community with open arms since we were offering such a hugely sought-after service. We hired 2 local people, Stanley and Demaris, to help us with translating, record-keeping and crowd control, which was very important. Most of the Soweto people had never seen a Medical Doctor, let alone an Optometrist or Optician, so as you can imagine, there were lineups beyond our view for the entire day, both days, sun up to sun down.
In those 2 days, we saw over 400 patients, some needing their first distance glasses, some needing their first bifocals, or reading glasses. We saw one girl who auto refracted at a -8.00 OU, which we thought must be a mistake, but when we fitted her with a -6.00, and saw her face light up, we knew there was no mistake. She was unable to speak at first, she just laughed, and looked around, with a smile bigger than any smile I’d ever seen before. We saw people in their early 50’s, telling us they think they are going blind, when in fact they just needed a pair of reading glasses, as they had never heard of presbyopia. We saw a case of trachoma, which I’d never seen before, but luckily Suzanne, who has been to Africa several times and worked at many clinics, knew exactly what it was, and was able to get antibiotics for the child who would have otherwise lost their sight.
The joy we brought these people is something I will never forget. It was hard work, it was hot, the days were long, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything else in the world. The feeling you get when you put a pair of glasses on someone for the first time and you see their eyes light up, and their entire world change, there are no words to describe that feeling. Knowing you have changed someone’s life; they can go to school, get an education, get a job, support their family, move out of the slum, provide an education for their children, who can then move on to have successful lives…. This is the impact one simple pair of glasses can have.
This year, Suzanne is returning to Kenya with 3 other nurses and will be continuing her work providing eyeglasses to the people in Soweto. I will be joining her team again in 2018, but she is looking for an Optician to help her in April 2017. If you are interested, please contact me for more details at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to discuss any questions you might have about volunteering in Kenya!
For more details please visit the following links:
Auto refractor: https://www.smartvisionlabs.com/about/history/
Zawadi La Tumaini Childrens Home: http://www.zlthope.org/
Kenya Tourism: http://www.magicalkenya.com/