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The Hope Alliance African Adventure: Eyeglasses and Gorillas

A group of 20 – most of them from Park City – travelled to Africa at their own expense with the local non-profit, The Hope Alliance, to help serve those in need of eye care.  These volunteers worked with students from the local nursing school and set up mobile clinics at three different locations over five days and tested the vision of more than 11-hundred Ugandans. They handed out more than a thousand pairs of prescription eye glasses and sunglasses – and experienced the beauty and incredible wildlife Uganda has to offer.  KPCW’s Leslie Thatcher was part of the service mission and has this report.
Uganda, Africa is home to almost half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas. It’s also home to one of the poorest nations in the world where it’s reported that more than a third of the country’s 45 million citizens live on less than a dollar 25 a day. It’s a place where eye glasses aren’t a priority.

While living on the equator provides for year-round farming to feed people, years of sunlight exposure increases the risk of cataracts, a clouding of the eye lens and the principal cause of blindness in the world.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot the volunteers can do in that situation and many of those who had stood in line, sometimes for hours to be tested, were told, sorry, you have cataracts – glasses won’t help.
October’s visit was the 2nd time the Hope Alliance had been to Uganda. Two of the vision clinics were set up in the village of Buhoma – which was basecamp for the volunteers. The village is located next to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park– and just miles from the Congo and Rwanda borders. The three other days, volunteers set out from base camp early and traveled relatively short distances, but which required long bus rides due to the one-lane, rough, dirt roads. In fact, one road had to be rebuilt on the spot in order for the volunteer bus to pass. The bus rides were dubbed the African Massage. 
Suitcases full of glasses as well as testing equipment were loaded up and unpacked in each of the locations, which included a brand new health clinic – so new that the electricity hadn’t been turned on yet. A generator was jury-rigged to power the vision testing equipment. 
Another location was a large brick church filled with handmade wooden pews, under which rocks had been tucked in to keep them level on the dirt floor. A generator was required in 
this location as well. 
The final vision clinic took place in a small and very busy health center where a malaria and typhoid clinic had also been scheduled for the same day. One of the  volunteers, a physician, helped move that clinic outside – away from the vision clinic, and they worked out of a van, drawing blood to test for tropical, diseases as well as prescribing medicine for eye sties, infections and even syphilis.
Weston Barney is an ophthalmologist in Draper who took off the two weeks to serve. Dr. Barney served on another Hope Alliance mission 15 years ago -- deep in the Amazon in Peru. At the time, he was a student who knew how to speak Spanish and had plans to be a dentist. After that mission, he changed careers.
“I came as a student and was going to be a dentist and because of a Hope Alliance mission decided to go into eye care. So, it’s kind of interesting that it’s come full circle and now I’m the eye doctor that’s here on the trip.”
Barney ended up running that clinic because the doctor for the mission didn’t show up.
“Because I spoke the language they said, hey,  do you want to the run the vision clinic and I said I’ve never had an eye exam in  my life, but let’s give it a shot. So, after fitting glasses on these people and seeing the instant gratification, the instate success they had.   I went home, quit my job and got a job in the optical industry and a year later was in optometry school.”
He says it’s tough to be able to only do so much with glasses when more than 10-percent of the 11-hundred  patients seen over the five days had cataracts he was unable to treat.
“Being on the equator there are so many cataracts. Cataracts have no cure other than surgery and being that it’s expensive to travel six hours to get surgery and the cost which is around US $200 US to do that it’s out of reach for most of the people in the valley.  So, we can fit a lot of glasses and do what we can but some of the pathology leaves me frustrated that I can’t solve that.”
Dell Fuller is the chairman of the Hope Alliance Board of Trustees. He’s been on similar Alliance missions to Peru and Guatemala. He says the trip to Uganda is more than just vison clinics. It’s planned as an expedition as a way to draw volunteers by offering safaris and mountain gorillas treks and learn more about the Batwa culture.
“Our focus has really narrowed down over the last 2 or 3 years to doing pretty much only vision clinics. And I can’t say why that is, other than perhaps for these expeditions that we do, it’s relatively easy to attract volunteers  because we don’t need professional people. We just need somebody with a big humanitarian heart and is willing to take an hour or two and learn how to how to run a retinamax machine and understand how we run this clinic and after that , it’s a piece of cake. I know for myself anyway, it’s a glorious experience every time I get to come on one of these expeditions.”
Even though Fuller has served with a number of the clinics, he says it never gets old watching someone put on a pair of glasses for the first time.
“I think for so many of these people it’s probably the first time ever that they’ve had corrective lenses on, so their expectation is sort of unknown.  I don’t know if it’s a shock and awe. A lot of o it is cultural . I find these Ugandans a little shy soft spoken, not particularly  demonstrative unless there’s music playing and they’re dancing and  then they cut loose . Otherwise, they’re just gentle souls and they smile and say thank you and I take that to be real genuine.”
Park City resident Stacy Lippert is a board member of the Kellerman Foundation. The foundation she says was thrilled to learn about the work the Hope Alliance is doing, since the foundation’s work in Africa doesn’t offer vision services.
“With the Kellerman Foundation in place as a partner organization, it was a perfect fit.”
The partnership she says is critical. Nearly 20 years ago, Scott Kellerman travelled to Uganda to assess the health needs of the Batwa pygmies who had been living in the forest – with the gorillas – until they were displaced and relocated when the government made the area a national park. 
“ They had been ousted form the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest so that the country could benefit from tourism with the gorillas. As a result, the Batwas pygmies started dying and their culture started dying and their language started dying and he saw how much need there was to restore them as a people.  So, he and his wife came back to the states sold everything including his practice and moved here for about 10 years. He spent his own money to start the hospital and over the course of all these years, the hospital has grown into what it is today.”
The Kellermans built a small clinic which has grown to become the 112- bed Bwindi Community hospital today which is rated as one of the best in the country. The foundation has also reached out to those with deep pockets who have helped build the new 300- student nursing school down the lane from the hospital.
Lippert says the connection with the hospital has opened doors to the Alliance to serve other rural areas where vision care is needed.
The foundation also opens up a couple of guest houses it owns – with dorm style bedrooms and shared bathrooms for volunteers-- like those serving with the Hope Alliance, as well as visiting doctors and medical educators at the hospital and nursing school.
Lippert expects even more future vision care in Uganda – and perhaps one day can open an operating room at the hospital dedicated to cataract removal. 
The Hope Alliance is planning another vision expedition to Africa next summer. You can find out more by going online to thehopealliance.com. To see some stunning photos of the trip, go to kpcw.org.