Three months after a powerful typhoon ripped through the Philippines, residents of hard-hit Tacloban were still desperate for one rare item: eye glasses.
"That was the number one thing they were asking for," said Dr. Shea Colpitts, an optometrist with Whistler Eye Clinic. "They have food and water now, but they lost their eye glasses in the typhoon."
When a last minute spot opened up on a trip to the country with Third World Eye Care Society Canada, a non-profit based in Vancouver, Colpitts decided to jump on a plane to go help. "They had a team of 18 there already, but two people had to leave," she said. "Surprisingly, it all fell into place."
Whistlerites, as well as people from the Lower Mainland, had donated their old glasses to the cause. Locally, glasses are collected at any of the eye clinics in town, as well as at the Rotary and Lions Clubs. Catalogued and labelled, thousands of pairs were shipped down to Tacloban with the group.
The volunteers who funded their own travel and accommodations set up clinics at three locations around the area. It wasn't long before word-of-mouth brought hundreds of patients. "On the first day of the clinic you might have less than 100 people," Colpitts said. "But by the third day, you'll have several hundred lined up. On the last day, the first person lined up at 1 a.m."
After quickly screening the patients for eye health problems, they were examined, given a prescription and sent to a makeshift dispensary where the donated glasses were ready and waiting to be distributed. "There were about 20 huge boxes of glasses all labelled with the powers on them and the (volunteer) just has to grab the prescription and adjust the glasses," Colpitts said.
While most of the patients had had glasses before the storm Colpitts heard one story of a group of nurses at a local hospital all sharing a single pair of reading glasses there were a handful receiving a new pair and seeing clearly for the first time.
One young patient in particular stood out. "There was one girl, I'm guessing she was about seven or eight years old," Colpitts said. "She had developed really dense cataracts in a short period of time. That was tough because she had a really hard time seeing and we couldn't operate on her. We gave her a pair of glasses that magnify everything, so hopefully she can at least learn at school."
Colpitts as well as some of her colleagues in Whistler have travelled abroad to volunteer with the organization before. What stood out about this particular trip was the people. "They were generally very, very happy people," she said. Even though they just got dealt this really difficult hand of cards, they were very resilient. They picked up and kept living and all had smiles on their faces and were welcoming and thankful."
The TWECS trips are ongoing and volunteers are always looking for old glasses.