Perry Nigh works with a Mexican woman to determine if a pair of donated prescription glasses will help her see.
When MATC Spanish instructor Perry Nigh tells people he's going to Mexico for a week each winter, he's often teased about escaping the Wisconsin winter to have fun in the sun. Nothing could be further from the truth. His days aren't spent soaking up sun by a pool - they're spent helping needy people regain their vision.
In late February, Nigh completed his fifth annual volunteer mission to Mexico with an Indiana-based Lions Club. Working with about 40 others, the group helped check the eyesight of about 7,300 individuals. They helped to fit those with vision problems with used eyeglasses that had been donated to the Lions Club.
The group visits a different Mexican city each year. This year, Nigh, his wife and MATC retiree Bob Transon flew to Aguascalientes, Mexico, at their own expense to help with the eyeglass mission. Their room and board is paid by the Mexican government.
MATC retiree Bob Transon checks a Mexican gentleman's close-up vision.
The Lions Club sent approximately 70,000 pair of donated glasses to the site.
Working from Sunup to Sundown
"We work about 12 hours a day for a week, from sunup to sundown," Nigh said. "It's exhausting, but it's very rewarding." In past years, they've traveled to Tlaxcala, Coacalco, Acapulco and Iguala.
They take nearly 70,000 pair of glasses with them on each trip. The glasses have been sorted and labeled by prescription by inmates from an Indiana prison. Prescriptions for each pair of glasses are entered into a computer so they can be easily retrieved when they are needed.
When local people come to have their eyes checked, they're asked to read an eye chart. If they have problems seeing the letters on the chart, they are assisted in using a machine called an autorefractor which reads their eyesight and provides a prescription in a matter of seconds. The computer then selects the donated glasses that are closest to their prescription. "We can usually find a pretty good match," Nigh said. "People usually have a couple pair to choose from."
If the eye refractor indicates that the eye is unreadable or the prescription seems unusual, the patient is referred to Mexican optometrists who work alongside the Lions Club group. Mexican optometrists are required to perform a year of service after graduating from college.
Citizens eligible for this service are invited by Desarrollo Integral de La Familia (DIF), a Mexican government agency that focuses on strengthening and developing the welfare of families. Eligible citizens are asked attend check ups at specific times so the lines don't get too long and they don't have to spend much of the day waiting for an appointment.
Mexican citizens wait to have their eyesight checked by volunteers.
Many Could Never Afford Glasses
"Whole families come," said Nigh. "Oftentimes, mom, dad, grandpa, grandma and the kids come together. For most of them, it's the first time they've have glasses. Many don't even know they need them. A lot of them could never afford to buy a pair of glasses, or if they could scrape up the money to buy them, they'd have to give up a lot of other necessities."
Nigh finds the work very rewarding. "This is a life-changing experience. It's so moving to help the subsistence farmer to be able to see his cows. Or to help the elderly woman who loves knitting to be able to see again."
"This is a life-changing experience. It's so moving to help the subsistence farmer to be able to see his cows. Or to help the elderly woman who loves knitting to be able to see again."
-- Perry Nigh
On average, there are five or six fluent bilingual volunteers in the group of 40. They help with troubleshooting, translating e-mails, and giving speeches for the group leaders. Nigh said that being bilingual helps tremendously.
"Some fitters don't know Spanish at all," he said. "Those of us who know the language can go two to three times as fast in helping people." In earlier years, very few of the volunteers were bilingual. "They used to depend on Mexican young people who had taken one year of English for translations. Soon they realized that much information was lost that way," Nigh explained. "So the Lions Club is very anxious to take Spanish-speaking volunteers on their trips."
Being immersed in speaking Spanish on the Lions Club missions helps the people they serve but it also helps Nigh, he said. "It keeps me in touch with the culture. Working with representatives of the Mexican government as well as with poor, indigenous peasants provides me with a wealth of exposure that I can bring to the classroom. It enhances my ability to facilitate a realistic discussion concerning the culture and the lack of services that are available to the Mexican community."
Nigh is proud to be part of this outreach. "It is an invaluable community service, and it's a conduit between MATC and a service learning organization at the international level," he said.
A volunteer uses an autorefractor to help read a young lady's prescription.
For more on this story:
Georgia Pabst, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter, blogs about Nigh's trip to help match Mexican citizens with necessary eyeglasses: