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The spirit made visible: Volunteer Optometric Services staffs eye-care clinics for needy people in rural Guatemala.

The power of prayer is not always as evident as it's been for optometrist Doug Villella and for the many thousands of Guatemalans whose blindness has been prevented through surgery or medical treatment, or who simply experience the gift of sight thanks to vision screening and a pair of eyeglasses, as a result of his tireless volunteer work with Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity.

"In 1989, my spiritual director suggested I do a retreat," said Villella. "I went on a 10-day retreat in Snowmass [Colo.] with Fr. Thomas Keating to learn centering prayer. That was the transformative experience of my life. My desire to serve in the Third World was a spontaneous interest that arose from the depths of my [continuing] prayer experience."

In 1990 Villella joined Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity/Pennsylvania, a branch of VOSH/International, which has 34 regional chapters and 25 student chapters worldwide. That year he went on his first mission trip.

For the first five years, Villella and the Pennsylvania chapter followed the international parent organization's charter recommendation, which" is "to provide primary eye care to whatever developing country you could develop a relation with," Villella explained.

He and his peers would take two or three weeklong mission trips per year to Guatemala or Haiti, serving 3,000 or 4,000 people per trip with basic eye care, medical treatment and medications.

That's not a bad week's work. But Villella wanted more than mission trips. While they're a "faith-building experience" for him and other volunteers, he sees them as limited in their scope and value unless they aim for long-term capacity-building. "Otherwise, you're wasting resources," he said. "It sounds harsh but it is really important that mission trips are coordinated with what the local communities and organizations need to build strength and become empowered."

With that in mind, when Villella became board president of the Pennsylvania chapter in 1995, the organization chose to shift its mission toward development work, not only providing charitable service.

Through several experiences that smack of miracles or just plain luck, Villella encountered a series of people who led him step by step toward an entrepreneurial model of eye care, with the goal of establishing a sustainable, locally run chain of eye-care clinics that treat millions of Guatemalans without regard for their ability to pay.


The first, and most influential on a personal level, was Vincent Pescatore, an American who was building orphanages in the jungles of Peten, Guatemala's northernmost state, bordered by Belize to the east and Mexico to the north and west.

Here's one example of the amazing events that make up this story: One summer day in 1995 Villella coincidentally parks his beach blanket near an old college friend at the Jersey shore. As they catch up with each other, she says she's adopting a Guatemalan orphan from a facility run by Pescatore. Villella remembers the name from an article in a Catholic mission magazine. He leaves for a volunteer trip to Guatemala with Pescatore's phone number in hand, but due to Villella's tight schedule and the extreme difficulty of patching a call through to remote Peten from the single phone in the highland village where Villella is seeing patients, it isn't until the next to last day of the trip that the two actually connect. They arrange to meet the next day at 2 p.m. Pescatore will fly his Piper jet down to pick up Villella and two colleagues at what passes for the local airstrip (it's really a cow pasture). He arrives at 2:10 and takes them over the heavy forest canopy into Peten, where Villella and his colleagues examine the 60 children at the orphanage itself and more at some small schools Pescatore had established up and down the Passion River there.

"There were countless people sitting around with blindness because they didn't have the means for treatment. He asked us to build an eye clinic. It was a very synchronous, divine moment when he asked us because we at the time were looking to funnel our resources into one region rather than flitting off to a different country every five or six months."

Pescatore, who was killed in a plane crash in 1996, "was so humble and holy I couldn't say no," Villella said. "He introduced us to some key people who wanted to see this work. That was the start of our partnership."

Another "part of the miracle," said Villella, is the role of supporters like Chris Wurst, a volunteer whose private foundation has come through with funding at critical times. Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity raised $2 million to fund three Pescatore Eye Association clinics in Peten, Guatemala City and Hutiapa, serving 3 million adults and 3.7 million children. They employ 100 Guatemalans. But what's really different about the project there, where 75 percent of its nearly 13 million people live below the poverty line, is that clinics sponsored by the organization are not only intended to provide services but to empower local people--and the business model is one of sustainability.

Today the clinics provide adult optical services such as eye exams and eyeglasses on a sliding scale, and in 2007 they generated a revenue stream that put them in the black. Since 2001, all children's care for patients under 14 is free. Eyeglasses that cost the clinics $20 and pediatric eye surgeries valued at $200 are free to children, subsidized by fees and donations.

Besides his board and other volunteers, Villella's in-country collaborators include Dr. Antonio Hernandez, an ophthalmologist he met through Pescatore, and two brothers, Drs. Nico and Mariano Yee. The Yees have gradually transformed their private practice in Guatemala City into a high-volume, self-sustaining service center. The doctors and their staff travel to the Pescatore clinics regularly and do outreach and screening in rural communities, referring back to the central clinic as necessary The three are a rare breed; only 20 of the approximately 150 ophthalmologists and 15 of about 125 optometrists in the country work outside Guatemala City.

Today Villella rarely travels on mission trips, focusing mostly on the organization's three fundraising goals: to maintain a $100,000 annual fund; to generate $1.5 million to replicate the

Pescatore model in eight other Central and South American countries and in Haiti; and to create a $2.5 million endowment to maintain their ability to carry out the basic mission of treating if not eliminating preventable blindness and providing basic eye care and vision screening. About $350,000 has been raised toward that goal.

One might well attribute this laundry list of successes to the fruits of the spirit made visible.

[Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis.]

Online resources Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity/Pennsylvania
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Title Annotation:MINISTRIES
Author:Berggren, Kris
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:2GUAT
Date:Sep 19, 2008
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