Maine OD encourages volunteering in the Caribbean to generate amazing impact

June 14, 2012

Jamaica is often celebrated for its beautiful sandy beaches, reggae music, and delicious Caribbean cuisine, but its great need for eye care services is not often publicized.

Kathy Ward, O.D., 25-year AOA member from Maine, felt inspired to take action when she found there were no public health optometrists and only two public health ophthalmologists for more than half a million people in western Jamaica.

In 2011, Dr. Ward offered her skills and talents to Great Shape! Inc.’s iCare Vision Project in Jamaica.

The previous year she offered her optometry skills to Haiti after the devastating earthquake.

“The glasses we prescribe nonchalantly at home are treasured gifts that can dramatically change lives in other countries,” said Dr. Ward.

Dr. Ward has become a champion for providing eye care services in the Caribbean.

“On an international scale I read that half of the world’s blindness is simply due to uncorrected refractive error,” she said. “This is one problem I know how to fix. I do it all day, every day, so why not spend a few days doing it in a region where they otherwise would have no eye care services.”

In Jamaica, a pair of glasses costs an average citizen more than a month’s pay.

“There were countless moments of hugs or tears when a patient would receive their glasses and be shocked by the sudden clarity of the world around them,” Dr. Ward reflected. “These moments are so incredibly rewarding, and we were all spoiled to have so many of them in such rapid succession.”

Lane Rohling, CPOT, another iCare volunteer and AOA member, said her most joyous moment came when she dispensed glasses to a 7-year-old boy who had never worn prescription glasses before.

From the donated eyeglasses, she found a pair with the prescription he needed, fit them to his face, and then led him outside to take a look around.

“The expression on his face brought me to tears,” said Rohling, who is from Tennessee. “He just kept looking around in amazement, and his mother could not thank me enough. After he and his mom left, I walked back inside and told the other opticians ‘That is why I’m here…’ HE is the reason I keep doing humanitarian trips!”

Since 2009, Great Shape! Inc.’s iCare project, in partnership with VOSH, LERC, the Sandals Foundation, and Sandals Resorts International, has served more than 10,000 Jamaicans. Teams of volunteers in temporary clinics provide eye exams, surgery referrals, and thousands of eyeglasses, readers, and sunglasses.

“The experience with iCare was wonderful,” Dr. Ward continued. “The organization and communication was excellent from the moment I expressed interest until I was headed back home.”

Both of her experiences in Haiti and Jamaica were extremely rewarding, Dr. Ward explained. “For anyone new to mission work, iCare makes it simple. They take care of the planning and you just show up and do what you already know how to do (times a thousand or so).”

In addition, Dr. Ward enjoyed meeting other volunteers from the United States, Canada, and beyond.

“The team was a joy to work with,” she said. “All were enthusiastic and without ego – ready and willing to do anything required to make the clinics run as smoothly as possible.”

iCare Program Director Steven Stern, who has volunteered in Jamaica since 2005, helped launch the project after providing a pair of reading glasses to a Jamaican woman who had not been able to read for 10 years.

“She screamed and burst into tears of joy as she opened a book. I was amazed by the difference a dollar-pair of readers could make to someone’s well-being. I was inspired to help as many Jamaicans as possible with their vision,” said Stern.

The iCare project is one of three humanitarian projects run by Great Shape! Inc.

Dr. Ward encourages other members to sign up.

“Joining a mission is inspiring. It gives you the opportunity to work with a team of good hearted enthusiastic folks and to have the joy of seeing the difference that you have made in people’s lives,” Dr. Ward said.

Great Shape! Inc. and the iCare vision project welcome other volunteer optometrists.

For information and applications, check out www.gsjamaica.org or email icare@gsjamaica.org.

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