Finding Barahona’s hero: Optometry students learn life lessons through VOSH missions

April 8, 2013
Third-year optometry student Dominique Oker writes about her mission trip to the Dominican Republic.

Third-year optometry student Dominique Oker writes about her mission trip to the Dominican Republic.

By Dominique M. Oker, Inter American University of Puerto Rico (IAUPR) School of Optometry third-year student

When I was asked to write an article on my experience in the Dominican Republic for IAUPR School of Optometry’s VOSH (Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity) mission trip, I immediately knew that I wanted to find a hero with a story that could inspire everyone. I was on a mission to write this article and I was determined to complete it.

Upon arriving to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, at Las America’s International, the seven of us student missionaries felt our stomachs turn with nervous butterflies in anticipation for what the day would bring.



Second-year optometry student Danny Soliman assesses a young girl.

Second-year optometry student Danny Soliman assesses a young girl.

Recalling those events, I am immediately taken back to the moment when I first stepped foot outside of customs and was greeted by a gentleman with the most kind smile, holding a small handmade sign that read “VOSH.” Our previous feelings of anxiety were immediately lifted off of our shoulders. We had finally arrived and were excited and willing to serve.

Lewis, the pastor, immediately began telling us his story of ministry at Calvary Chapel. He told us stories of how he has helped children throughout Barahona, his hometown, get everything from uniforms for school to food to survive. He described a life of nothing less than selflessness. This was it. Without even stepping foot inside of Barahona, I found a man who has dedicated his entire life, his entire being, to service. I had found Barahona’s hero.

We made our way to the neighborhood projects of Alpha in the city of Barahona where paved cement roads were a thing of the past and houses with four complete walls were no longer a reality. Suddenly, I was taken back to the Las America’s International Airport. Anticipation, anxiety and uneasiness returned in the form of those small, fluttering butterflies as we rocked back and forth along the cement-less roads in our eight-passenger van.

Isha Kosa poses with one of the patients in the Dominican Republic.

Isha Kosa poses with one of the patients in the Dominican Republic.

Upon arriving at the church, we were greeted by the most caring, warm-hearted smiles I could have ever imagined. It was a feeling all too familiar. It was here that I realized that a welcoming, kind-hearted smile had the ability to wipe away any worries. A smile that commands that everything is going to be all right was not a characteristic unique to our hero Lewis. It was unique to this neighborhood of Alpha in the city of Barahona.

With person after person I continued to see the same yet unique personalized version of that smile. Not only was it the smile that was so intriguing, but also the stories that stood behind them where inspiration lived and filled the room.

A few other heroes I met were Jared and Stephanie, a young married couple who gave up their home in northern Maryland to move to the island. The couple assists the church with food distribution and participates in the youth group.

Another hero was Pastor Doug McClean, with whom Lewis founded the church through a simple Bible study four years ago. Since then it has grown to having its own building and youth sponsorship programs throughout the city.

Student Kerri Letwin checks an older patient’s acuity.

Student Kerri Letwin checks an older patient’s acuity.

More heroes, Steve and Christine sponsor three children through the church and have traveled to the Dominican Republic and Greece on missionary trips.

Each patient was not only receptive, but also thankful for our care. The theme repeated itself over and over again. Each conversation always started with that smile, continued by inspiration and ending leaving each and every one of the student VOSH members touched at the heart and inspired by the mind.

Traveling to Barahona and searching for a hero was a lost cause. I failed at my mission. Not because Barahona is a city that cannot be saved, but because it is a city that has already been saved. That savior was found by the grace, hope and inspiration that revealed itself to me in something as simple and as universal as a smile.

Other students on the mission trip shared what they learned from volunteering with VOSH.

“They say your life is defined by places you go and people you meet. This VOSH trip to Dominican Republic definitely played a role in making me a better citizen of the world. The trip not only proved to be a great professional learning experience, but also provided an insight into the state of vision care beyond the boundaries of our nation. I am extremely thankful to VOSH Puerto Rico and Dr. Augusto Carrion for allowing me the opportunity to serve a community much in need of vision care and to contribute toward VOSH’s mission,” said Dharti Joshi, IAUPR School of Optometry third-year student.

“My experience in Barahona, Dominican Republic, was educational as well as a humbling quest. We traveled up the hills of this small town village where most of the houses were constructed with palm-wood boards and any other material they can find. Most homes consisted of one room, little to no amenities, three to five people, and only one bed if even that. As we examined the residents, there was a trend of cataracts, pterygiums, and dry eyes. Most of it has to do with their living conditions and sanitary practices. Even though we were able to facilitate over 500 residents and had the opportunity to witness some of them put on a pair of glasses for the first time, it feels like it is not enough. If they were better educated about their eyes, some of these disorders may be prevented,” said Danny Soliman, IAUPR School of Optometry second-year student.

“Going to the Dominican Republic was the most fulfilling experience. Being able to use the skills I have learned to help others brought an overwhelming completeness to me. This trip reiterated why I am going into health care and how blessed I am. For those thinking of doing a medical mission, I highly advise you to go on one. It will be the most memorable experience of your life. It was definitely the most memorable of mine,” said Ratidzo Macharaga, IAUPR School of Optometry third-year student.

“I went on this trip expecting to help people, and in return they impacted me more than I ever would have imagined. The people of Barahona and their unforgettable smiles humbled me beyond what words can explain. Watching the joy from putting on a pair of glasses for the first time to see the world around them in a way they have never seen it before made me realize how much I can change a person’s quality of life as an optometrist and reinforced my love for optometry,” said Pariya Shamsaee, IAUPR School of Optometry third-year student.

VOSH’s Annual Meeting will be held in conjunction with the Puerto Rican Optometric Association’s Meeting Oct. 10-12 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For more information on VOSH, visit www.vosh.org.

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