OD volunteer in Caribbean sees mission as amazing giftApril 11, 2013
The island of Jamaica seemed to show up everywhere last year. Bob Marley splashed across movie theatres, Usain Bolt ran across television screens, Jamaica joyously celebrated 50 years of independence, and AOA member, Philip Raber, O.D., stepped foot on the island for the first time.
Jamaica is the fifth-largest, island-country in the Caribbean. In the face of all the recognition in 2012 though, lies a very dark reality for many of its communities. Thousands of Jamaicans couldn’t even partake in any of these celebratory sights because they cannot see.
Dr. Raber, AOA member since 1994, felt called to action when he realized the shortage of eye care providers across the Caribbean. In Western Jamaica, there are no public health optometrists and only two public health ophthalmologists for more than half a million people.
Dr. Raber volunteered with Great Shape! Inc.’s iCare Project in Jamaica last fall. He has also served in Haiti and Honduras.
“Each country is unique, and I enjoy getting to learn about other cultures,” said Dr. Raber. “However, there is a familiar constant in many developing countries, and that is a shortage of eye care providers.”
Dr. Raber believes in the work of Great Shape! “iCare does a fantastic job of identifying regions where there is a great need for eye care. I was attracted to volunteering with them because of their reputation of being well-organized,” he said.
Great Shape! Inc.’s iCare Project partners with VOSH, LERC, the Sandals Foundation, and Sandals Resorts International. Great Shape! Inc. launched the project in Jamaica in 2009 and has provided eye care services to more than 10,000 Jamaicans in the past four years. Great Shape!’s crews set up temporary eye care clinics in rural areas that don’t have any access to these services. Volunteers provide: eye exams, surgery referrals, and thousands of eyeglasses, readers, and sunglasses.
“Jamaica is a wonderful place,” Dr. Raber continued. “At times the crowd of incoming patients grew anxious, but overwhelmingly the people were very pleasant, patient, and appreciated the services we provided.”
“It was hard work packing up and traveling to our remote work site each day, then seeing patients until the sun was going down, but the work was rewarding and the effort was worth it as our patients almost always expressed their gratitude at the end of their exam,” said Dr. Raber.
Dr. Raber described his favorite moment: “…the best feeling came after fitting a number of taxi drivers with prescription eyewear. They remarked how much clearer they could see, which made me wonder how they previously had been negotiating all the curves and potholes in the Jamaican roads!”
iCare Program Director, Steven Stern, who started volunteering in Jamaica in 2005, initiated this program after providing a pair of reading glasses to a Jamaican woman who had not been able to read for 10 years.
“She put on the glasses and cried out in joy as she looked at a book and was able to read again after so many years. Before this moment she had accepted her poor sight and assumed she would never read again,” said Stern. “I was amazed by the profound difference a simple pair of glasses can make to someone’s life and well-being. Every day of clinic the volunteers witness this reaction over and over as patients are able to see properly, often for the first time, allowing them to read, perform in their jobs, and achieve at school.”
The iCare project is one of three humanitarian programs led by Great Shape! Inc. The 501 c 3, founded in 1988, serves more than 40,000 people a year. The other programs include: 1000 Smiles (dental), and SuperKids (literacy). Accommodations and infrastructure are provided for all three projects thanks to solid partnerships with the Sandals Foundation and the Jamaican Ministries of Health and Education.
Besides the joy of serving others, Dr. Raber credits iCare’s success to the team of volunteers that serve Jamaica. “The enthusiasm of our team of volunteers was contagious. It was a real blessing and a lot of fun serving with the 40 other team members. I really had no idea who the others would be, or what skills they brought, but one thing we had in common was a passion for serving,” he said.
He encourages others to serve with iCare, “It’s quite obvious that many needs remain. For example, to get cataract surgery at the regional public hospital, the waiting list is over a year long.”
“iCare is a volunteer opportunity that hits the mark and makes a difference for the people they are serving. The chance to serve rejuvenates my energy for my profession as an optometrist, and each day I spent working in Jamaica was a perfect day, knowing that I had helped many people,” said Dr. Raber.
Great Shape! Inc. and the iCare vision project seek optometrists, ophthalmologists, nurses, opticians, students, and all kinds of other people with a heart for service.