Williams College Eye Care and Culture Winter Course: ten years restoring visions in Caribbean Nicaragua

14 February 2012

‘Eye doctors’ have been coming to Pearl Lagoon forever. The kind that drops into town unexpectedly, pays some local messenger to round up customers, then ends up telling you that you have something ‘serious’ like myopia, hyperopia or astigmatism. Next thing you know, you are dishing out 300 córdobas to get to Bluefields to pick up an 800-córdoba pair of glasses you might not even need. That´s about 50 dollars gone, just like that. And like Prof Ken Berry, a math teacher at the Pearl Lagoon Academy of Excellence says, “the amount might not sound like a lot to some people, but for us around here who live off a little fishing, a little farming and things like these it is more than a whole month of savings.” And that is when you are lucky to have a job to begin with.

Fortunately, in more recent years an entirely different class of ‘eye doctors’ has been coming to Pearl Lagoon and its surrounding communities. For one thing, they don’t call themselves eye doctors. They call themselves “eye care” providers. And they do care and they do provide, completely free of charge prescription lenses for people who have difficulties seeing from near (myopia) or far (hyperopia), as well as sunglasses to give relief from the glare.

“If we find a patient that has a prescription for glasses we don’t have, we’ll make the glasses in the States and send them back to FADCANIC to distribute here,” said optometrist Elise Harb.

We are talking about members of the Williams College Eye Care and Culture brigade, who were in Pearl Lagoon last January 15 and 16. The brigade is formed by undergraduate students from the Massachusetts school and by optometrists and other volunteers from around the region of New England in the United States. They´ve been coming to the Caribbean Nicaragua for ten years now, and in areas like the Pearl Lagoon basin, where no other public optical health service is yet available, these are the care providers that people who really, really need glasses, like Mr Edison Tinoco, a 70-year old farmer, and Mrs Marjorie Williams, a community organizer in Awas, have come to rely on for regular eye check-ups.

Isabel Rivas, agricultural worker in Kukra Hill, about to collect her new glasses: "One pair to refresh my eyes, the other to read." Marjorie Williams, community organizer in Awas: "I look to this service every year so I always come very early."
Mr Isaac, fisherman in Raitipura: "I always bring my mother. This year I got the check up too." Mr Tinoco, farmer in Pearl Lagoon: "I can´t thank you enough."

The Eye Care and Culture Course is the brain child of Adjunct William College Professor Robert Peck. He was not able to come to Pearl Lagoon this time around. But he has been on all previous trips in what is now a decade-long collaboration with FADCANIC and with the international organization, Volunteer Optometric Services for Humanity (VOSH)

Bob Peck, seen here at a Williams College sports event, is a retired Director of Athletics. Williams College is a private liberal arts undergraduate school located in Williamstown, Massachussetts. In both 2010, and 2011, Forbes Magazine ranked Williams College as the best undergraduate institution in the United States, ahead of every Ivy League university in that country.


The service is fully-funded by Williams College and it includes taking people´s vision, determining what type of glasses the patient needs, and providing them with these, including in some cases, especially-made lenses for those who have unique visual needs.  

In Professor Peck´s absence, Bostonian Elise Harb, of the New England College of Optometry, led the two-day clinic service in Pearl Lagoon attending around a hundred people from the town as well as the neighbor communities of Awas, Raitipura and Haulover.

They had already been to Bluefields, Bluff, Rama Cay and Kukra Hill and would be heading after to Tasbapounie, Orinoco, Wawashang, and Kahkabila. Said Adrian Castro, a second year economics and history student at Williams and one of the counters for the trip: “We have seen a total 26 hundred patients so far and we still have about three days left, so I think we will get to of about 31 to 32 hundred” in all.

It is the average number the brigade has been serving every year, which means that in the past ten years since they’ve been coming to the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, they’ve attended at least 30,000 people in communities as remote and diverse as Sandy Bay Sirpi and Karatá, Walpa and Rama Cay, Corn Island and Brown Bank—just to mention a few.

In Elise´s case, this was her ninth trip to Nicaragua and her seventh to Caribbean Nicaragua. “It always runs smoothly and we have always been very fortunate to be able to come and provide this service to all the people we see,” she said. The most memorable part of the experience for her is “when you put on a pair of glasses on someone and realize that you have actually changed their world. There are lots of people here who need their vision for their livelihoods. The man that fish needs to be able to bait a hook, the woman that sews needs to be able to thread a needle. So when you put the glasses on and their faces light up and they have a huge smile, the hugs and the blessings that I get are very rewarding. It is a fantastic part of my year.”

Optometrist Elise Harb: "I feel like I am part of a good organization."

Optometrist Katie Fields: “Someone came up with this simple procedure that can be quickly learnt and serve so many."

Optometrist Wendy Cruzberg: “It seems almost necessary to go and be able to spread what you know.” FADCANIC´s Luis Felipe Hernandez in Kukra Hill: "This is third year they´ve visited Kukra Hill and folks are coming to seek help all the way from places as deep in the countryside as La Fonseca."

It is a fantastic part of the year of many others who benefit from this extraordinary experience of providing and seeking for eye care. Here is how some others who shared in this year´s experience, see it:

Adrian Castro: “A lot of my friends have grown up in this country, so it has been interesting to come and see it for myself and I am glad I did, because it is one of the most rewarding experiences of my college career so far.”
Margaret Richmond: ”I am a senior at Williams, so I thought it would be nice to take advantage of this opportunity before I graduate. The hardest part is not being able to speak any Spanish, but I am trying to communicate with gestures.”
Tyisha Turner (left):” We take so much for granted like being able to go to the health center for something as simple as eye drops to stop one´s eyes from itching.”

Then again for Miss Sharelle (right), from the Miskitu community of Raitipura, it was also a chance to come into town to catch up with old friends.