Jennifer and Ben Price always said they would go on an I Care International mission trip, it was just a matter of timing. When the Prices found out this year I Care was doing a mission trip in Guatemala, it seemed that time had arrived. The Prices youngest child, daughter Maya, is adopted from Guatemala. They adopted her at 6 months and she is now 3 years old.
“It’s important to us to be involved locally, but also globally, since we have a child from Guatemala,” said Jennifer Price, who is a new I Care board member. In addition to Maya’s roots, another reason for their participation is the Prices also have a 6-year-old son, Jett, who has disabilities. This includes vision impairment, so being able to help others to see hits home for the couple. “Both my husband and I went and it is a life-changing opportunity,” Jennifer Price said. “To go to another country with so little, but they are so grateful for any help they get.”
I Care is an organization dedicated to improving the vision and hearing of those in need. Dr. Phil Ortiz, a now-retired Morris optometrist, and the late Dr. Charles Cools of Princeton founded the organization in 1989. The Prices attended the I Care trip to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, in March. They were just two of about 35 volunteers from Illinois to California, Canada and Costa Rica. The Prices joined three others from Morris on the trip, including Ortiz, Dr. Peter Roumeliotis, and Steve Matteson.
“This was the best one (he’s been on) because we had great volunteers all the way from Mendota, Morris, Springfield, Darien, Naperville (Illinois), Oregon, Washington, San Diego and San Francisco, California, I mean all over and everyone was really willing to work,” Ortiz said.
In addition to the Guatemala trip, another I Care group did a mission in April to Oaxaca, Mexico. This trip included 21 volunteers, including four community members of Morris: Jim and Carla Bianchetta, Jim Wright and Charlie Gibbs. Jim Bianchetta, a former president of I Care, led the group.
I Care had been to both of these locations before and returned because of the great need, Ortiz said. At both clinics, almost 1,700 patients were seen during each mission. Each group brought thousands of donated prescription glasses and sunglasses. Many were donated by area Lions Clubs, including the Morris Lions Club.
Each group had volunteer optometrists, ophthalmologists, optometry students and other types of doctors on their trips. The Morris Rotary Club sponsored two of the optometry students’ trips to Mexico, said Gibbs, a Rotarian. Morris Rotary usually does this annually.
In Guatemala, Roumeliotis also brought diabetes screening and blood pressure equipment. In Guatemala this year, I Care worked with the International Eye Institute to conduct cataract surgeries. Of the almost 1,700 patients seen in Guatemala, about 57 were referred for surgery. Of the 57, 22 were able to make the five-hour bus ride to the hospital for the free surgery, Ortiz said. “A lot were afraid to go,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz described one man who had to be escorted everywhere by his wife because he was completely blind from cataracts. He was approved for surgery, but because of the fear and not being able to contact his sons for support, he passed on the opportunity. “He did not want to do it without his sons’ knowledge. The Latino culture is very family orientated. So his wife led him out of the clinic as she led him in. It was very sad,” he said.
Surgery was only recommended for those who were blind because of the cataracts. The patients were allowed to bring one family member with for the trip, which they took on a “chicken bus.” The group in Mexico referred about 20 patients with severe cases for cataract surgery, Bianchetta said via e-mail. These surgeries will take place this summer at a university in Oaxaca City.
Although the groups are back from their missions, the volunteers are still hard at work for the people in need. Dr. Dan Lieberman, a Cook County optometrist, is in the process of shipping prescription glasses to Mexico for those difficult prescriptions that could not be filled while he was there because the donated glasses were not strong enough. “These were mostly children with very poor sight,” Bianchetta said.
Like the Prices, this was Wright’s first I Care mission. As a friend of Gibbs who has been on three mission trips, Wright said he had a good idea of what to expect on his Mexico trip, but he was still amazed. “We’d get there at 7:30 a.m. and there would be 100 people lined up waiting for us,” Wright said.
In Mexico, the group worked out of a facility used solely by humanitarian groups. It was a former slaughter house, although you would never think so, Wright said. This group received help from the local Rotary Club and from the Mexican equivalent of America’s Children and Family Services, Bianchetta said. Wright ran one of the automated refractors to measure patients prescriptions. “I had one guy who could not read my fingers until they were just one foot in front of him,” Wright said. During Gibbs’ three trips, he has done all the jobs, from using the refractors to fitting patients for glasses, he said. “Fitting is very rewarding. Especially when you put a pair of glasses on someone and they get that smile on their face like they’re seeing everything for the first time,” said Gibbs.
I Care is already planning for next year’s trips. They will not be able to return to Guatemala because of the trouble they encountered bringing their equipment into the country, Ortiz said. They are considering Panama, Argentina and other parts of Mexico, among others. To prepare, I Care is asking for donated glasses and hearing aids now.
In addition, Ortiz asks people to remember that, if someone cannot afford to volunteer for a mission, there are plenty of other ways individuals and clubs can volunteer, such as cleaning and organizing glasses. For more information on I Care, how to donate or to volunteer, call (815) 942-8004. Glasses and hearing aids can be donated at Ortiz Eye & Hearing Associates at 880 Bedford Road in Morris. Morris volunteer Jennifer Price uses a handheld automatic refractor to measure the sight of a man during an I Care Clinic in Guatemala. This was Price’s first mission trip with I Care. (Photo courtesy of Lance Kinney Photography)
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