Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Reading Glasses Distribution

Guess what? I’m sitting here in the dark once again. This whole electricity outage thing is starting to drive me crazy, especially since it gets dark so much earlier here than it does at this time of the year back home. The guesthouse has a generator but last week, it stopped working. Great, huh? On the bright side, it makes me realize how electricity is something I definitely take for granted back home. I never really think about the fact that maybe my electricity will stop working and I will be stuck in the dark without a fan all night and without a way to charge my electronics.

Its pouring outside. In little sporadic chunks. It pours for like 30 seconds and then stops for a minute or two and then starts again. It’s crazy! The sky was so dark and gloomy this afternoon but Nicholas, one of the teachers at Christ Orphanage told me that he was now a weather forecaster and that it wouldn’t rain today. For some weird reason, I kinda just took his word for it.

It’s crazy how quickly people here rush to cover when the rain starts. Within a few seconds, people pack up their shops, tables of products, or dinner preparations and move to somewhere dry. It’s not too bad when you’re outside because people use candles, which they have melted to the bottoms of cans. They provide enough light for various activities. These candles can be seen on the sides of the roads every night as the women selling their products on tables at night put out a candle or two on the table so that they can see and so that others can see them and their products.

Even when outside without lights, it’s not too bad. When I visit Raymond’s house at night and the electricity is out and no lights are lit, I can see pretty well. Even though I can’t make out faces in the distance, the light of the moon is enough to see people and things within a reasonable distance. And when it is not too cloudy at night, the stars light up the sky as well. When I look at the sky here it reminds me of being at camp, a place in the middle of nowhere where lights are limited and the sky is filled with millions of stars. It is just breathtaking.

For those of you who don’t know, in order to raise funds for Christ Orphanage and provide people with a tax write off, I came into contact with an organization called Eyes On Africa. Sherry, the founder of this organization generously allowed me to operate under her 501C3. As Eyes On Africa provides reading glasses to people in rural Africa, Sherry asked me if I would be interested in learning how to test people’s eyes and distribute reading glasses to the community I serve in Ghana. I quickly agreed and before I departed for Ghana, she shared her knowledge on this topic with me and taught me everything I needed to know.

A few weeks ago, the package full of reading glasses, sunglasses, and mini sewing kits arrived. The box was pretty beat up but everything inside was still in tact. Patrick helped me separate the sunglasses and sewing kits and count all the glasses. We became familiar with the items we had and started planning the distribution day. As there were 240 pairs of reading glasses and about 50 pairs of sunglasses in this package, I thought that we would need to put on distributions at multiple sites in order to give out all the glasses.

We decided to start with one distribution at a time. We set the date and Patrick got permission from the school that he teaches at for us to set up the distribution at the school’s chapel. Patrick altered the town cryer though which the news of the distribution was spread to the community of Wegbe. Wegbe is the subsection of Hohoe that I am staying in (and that the orphanage is located in). According to Patrick, there are about 2,500 people who live in Wegbe alone. I was very surprised when I heard that figure as I had assumed that a smaller number of people lived in this village.

When Patrick informed some of the town’s elders of the plans, they were impressed and very supportive but not impressed by the fact that I had been in town for three weeks and that my host had yet to introduce me to them. Patrick apologized on behalf of Raymond and invited one of the town’s elders to come by on Sunday night to meet me. As the other elders were out of town, only one stopped by but he was extremely welcoming and excited to hear about what I had been doing in his town and how I found out about the town in the first place. We had a nice discussion and he informed me that I pass by his shop quite often and always greet him and wave but that until that night, he didn’t know who I was and what I was doing in Wegbe.

On Sunday, Patrick announced to his church that the distribution would be happening the following morning at 9:00am. After returning home from church on Sunday and doing a million other things, I re-familiarized myself with the instructions given to me by Sherry. I mounted the eye charts with which we were to use to test the people on colored construction paper and made little signs for the different levels of glasses so that we could easily keep track of which glasses were which. I packed up some tape, my camera, a big bottle of water, and all my other Eyes On Africa supplies.

Patrick had gotten permission from his school’s headmaster to take the day off to assist me with the distribution. Raymond had put me in touch with an optometrist from the nearby hospital but he wanted to take over and do things much differently than the way I had been trained. I explained to him that I was not in charge of Eyes On Africa but rather a volunteer and did not have the authority to change the way the testing was conducted. Although his intentions were good, he was difficult to talk with and wanted to do things his way only. I decided against partnering with him in the distribution for these reasons.

As the distribution day was quickly approaching, Patrick got in touch with one of his family members (he can’t really put the way that they are related into words but claims that they are related).

(FYI – the electricity just came back on – that’s very exciting for me)!

Anyways, back to Patrick’s family member. This woman, Charity, agreed to come to the distribution and assist us with the testing and distribution of the glasses. Charity, a nurse at the Health Department here in Ghana was an amazing asset to our team of volunteers.

Patrick and I agreed to leave my hotel at 8am on Monday morning. I had the box of glasses and my bag ready to go. Patrick had already dropped off his Ewe Bible and would bring an English Bible as well as a few other books and a nice size mirror for us to use.

I got up early, put on my Eyes On Africa Volunteer shirt which Sherry had sent to me and got my breakfast. It was only 7:30 but Patrick had already showed up and was ready to go. I finished my breakfast and we headed out. Patrick had instructed two of his students (fifth graders) to come to the hotel and pick up the box of glasses and the mirror and books, which they carried on their heads to the distribution center.

When we arrived at the campus, all of the students were outside at their morning assembly at which the headmaster was speaking. We greeted some of the teachers that Patrick works with and some other women who were standing nearby. The women asked if they could be served right away as they had been waiting for us to arrive. We told them that they would need to give us some time to set up and that we would serve them at the chapel.

After being spotted by some younger children who were not part of the school and greeting them and giving them high fives, we walked over to the chapel. As we walked up, I saw about 30 (mostly elderly people) sitting outside. Patrick confirmed my thoughts as he told me that all of these people were waiting for us. It was only 8:20am and there were already 30 people waiting for us! But wait, we entered the chapel and to my surprise, I saw another 20-30 people sitting in the pews. I took a deep breath. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people already there. I was a little overwhelmed but unzipped my backpack and started to set up the distribution center and testing table.

The people who were sitting outside came inside and found seats. Patrick had gone to get something so I was alone with 50-60 of the people from the local community. They were silent and watching my every move. It was a little weird but I quickly got over it.

Patrick returned with Charity and the three of us stood up and greeted all of the people. Then, Patrick addressed them in Ewe and explained who I was and what we would be doing, as well as how the glasses should be used as well as instructions regarding caring for and cleaning the glasses. I explained the way we would operate to Patrick and Charity and went over the testing with them.

Charity was in charge of the actual testing as she could communicate with the people a little better than I could and knew how to test the people as she is a health professional and I explained the testing process to her. After the people had tested, Charity would tell me the level of glasses they should get. I had one pair of each level of glasses on the table with little place card type things that helped me stay organized and had the level of glasses written on them. I also had an Ewe Bible and an English Bible. I would give the person the designated glasses for their eyes and ask them to read to me from the Bible. About a dozen or so people requested to read from the English Bible as they could not read Ewe. A few others couldn’t read either Ewe or English so I asked them to read the letters to me.

I would ask the person if the letters were clear. If the letters were not clear or the person said that the words were blurry or that the glasses were not good for them, I would give them the next highest or lowest level of glasses. This process took longer with some people than with others.

It was so inspirational and rewarding when a person would put the glasses on, look at the Bible and say, “I can read.” They were so excited to be given the opportunity to read. Others didn’t need to say anything as the look on their face when the looked at the Bible was enough to tell me that they could see clearly see the letters and read for the first time in a long time.

After deciding on the level of glasses, reading with the glasses on, and explaining to the people that no, we did not have sight glasses as well, I would write down the glasses level on a piece of paper and send the person over to Patrick. Patrick was in charge of writing down some basic information about the people – name, age, sex, and level of glasses so that we had some documentation and could determine the glasses which were most needed by various age groups and to discourage people from returning during the day to get another pair of glasses. After documenting this information, Patrick would get the person the level of glasses and ask them to try them on again. Patrick had some books so that the people could look at the book with their new glasses. A few times, the glasses were not right for the person and they would be sent back to be re-tested and to try different glasses.

Although it was early, we decided to get started on distributing the glasses rather than waiting until 9am. I was unsure as to how to handle this large of a crowd and was worried that chaos would break out if we allowed those seated in the first few rows to come up first. This worry was quickly put aside as Patrick informed me that as the people showed up, they were given a slip of paper with a number on it. The number corresponded to when they arrived so that those who got there first could be served first. It was a great system and it all worked out extremely well. We had a few instances when a crowd of people would gather around the testing table but Charity took care of it and refused to continue testing until all of the people had returned to their seats.

We worked very hard from about 8:30am until 2pm. I was very hungry by that point and grateful that somehow Patrick had gotten us some corn. We always had a large number of people – they just kept showing up. I lost track of time but at some point, Patrick informed me that we had no more level 3 glasses. Shortly after, he informed me that we were also out of a few of the other higher level glasses. This made things a bit difficult.

I felt horrible that there were still so many people to serve and we were out of a lot of the glasses. I had to inform people that we did not have any glasses that would work for their eyes left. I told these people that they could choose a pair of sunglasses if they wanted but that I would not be able to give them a pair of reading glasses. The first few people that I told this to did not want to take a pair of sunglasses, but this quickly changed. The women and men had a blast trying on different pairs of sunglasses and looking at themselves in the mirror. I had to explain to them numerous times that the glasses were for the sun, not for reading – I think that by the third or fourth time I told them this, they finally understood. When they found a pair of glasses that they liked, they would ask me to take their photo. It turned into a little game. They would search through the box of sunglasses for a pair they liked, try on a few pairs, and then decide on the pair they liked the best and have me photograph them wearing the glasses.

Even though we were out of some of the glasses, we still had quite a crowd. We continued testing and were able to serve those who did not need very strong glasses. Around 2pm, we had served everyone in the building and had run out of glasses. Patrick, Charity, and I were exhausted. We packed up the testing materials and picked up the slips of paper that had been dropped all over the floor.

As we headed out of the building, two men approached me and asked if I had anymore glasses. I informed them that all the glasses had been given away and I had none left. I felt bad that I could not help these men but impressed at the same time by the fact that we had been in that chapel all day and had helped to give so many people the opportunity to read. For some of the very elderly people and people with eye problems, the level 3 glasses were not strong enough for them. Charity talked to these people and wrote down the name of an eye clinic in town and the times that it would be open to serve them. I was glad that we were able to provide them with another resource instead of sadly just turning them away.

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