Third World Visionary
Ardmore optometrist Jack Hauler restores sight—and lives.
In Central America, that you’re poor is probably a given. But if you also have poor eyesight, you can’t work—and there’s no safety net, no social security and no disability. So at least one of your children or grandchildren must remain home and forego school to become a caregiver. Lost income, lost education and lost time all have a ripple effect.
But more and more, there are success stories like that of Maximinos Zacharias, a Guatemalan refuge from the nation’s 40-year civil war. Blind from cataracts, he had surgery to restore his vision. Zacharias then took his life’s savings and started a modest store—a tienda. Now he supports himself and his family.
Guatemala is a country of children, too—like 10-year-old Betya, whose sight was so bad from congenital cataracts she’d never enrolled in school. After surgery, she began school in second grade, then was promptly promoted to fourth grade the following year.
“It can be stunning just to put a pair of glasses on someone who has never seen before,” says Ardmore optometrist Dr. Jack L. Hauler. “Words can’t describe it, but they’re seeing the world for the first time.”
Hauler is co-founder of the Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity of Pennsylvania, a non-profit humanitarian chapter of VOSH/International dedicated to reducing avoidable blindness by em-powering, training and equipping doctors in developing countries. Since its in-ception, VOSH/PA has treated more than 180,000 patients, dispensed 75,000 pairs of eyeglasses and diagnosed and performed 15,450 sight-saving surgeries in nine developing countries. Other than Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti, those countries include Belize, Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia and Trinidad. The mission of VOSH/International’s massive eye health campaign is to build self-sustainable eye clinics—something VOSH/PA has nearly accomplished in Guatemala. Next up: Haiti.
“In a way, we feel like what we’re doing is just a drop in the bucket,” Hauler says. “We’re making a difference, but it’s best for us to look at the numbers we’ve helped rather than see it as a fractional percent of those who need our help. We’re there for four or five days, and every time we leave, we feel like if we stayed for four or five years, we’d still never get to everyone.”
Hauler, who lives in Malvern, has owned and operated a Pearl Vision franchise in Suburban Square for the last 22 years. On his Third World trips, he’s seen the worst in eyes—and everything else. “One minute, I can be driving down Lancaster Avenue in the middle of Bryn Mawr,” he says. “The next, I’m driving in the jungle past shacks to get to people lined up by the hundreds waiting to get into our clinics.”
What began as an annual trip has become a twice-a-year mission, the last six or eight of which have been to Guatemala. Half of all his trips have been to Mexico. Hauler’s last trip, his 25th, was in February. Joining him were his daughter, Kate, and a friend, Laetizia Biczari, both sophomores at Agnes Irwin completing one of two required community-based projects in the school’s special studies program. In all, 12-18 volunteers staff each venture.
VOSH/PA was founded in 1990 by Hauler and Horsham’s Dr. David R. McPhillips, both graduates of Ursinus College, where they met as freshmen in biology class and then studied together at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry in Philadelphia. They anchor the organization’s nine-member board of directors.
Half the state chapter’s 130 volunteers are eye doctors; the others are interested individuals, including Hauler’s father, Larry, a retired elementary school teacher, who’s also on the board. Jack’s mother, Ruth, is the chapter’s secretary.
McPhillips’ focus of late has been Haiti, where VOSH/PA is trying to spearhead the same medical marvel as it has in Guatemala, a trio of eye clinics on schedule to be self-sustainable sometime this year. Hauler, too, figures to spend the next couple years in Haiti, which is even poorer than Guatemala. “We’ve told ourselves that we need to stretch ourselves again,” Hauler says. “To start from scratch and do the same thing in another place where we can make a difference.”
The thousands of pairs of glasses VOSH/PA gives away each trip are donated by civic clubs, churches, professional offices, optical companies and individuals.
They’re cleaned, checked for damage, measured for power, labeled and stored.
In his fourth year of optometry school, Hauler first traveled to Haiti—saw the problem first-hand—and returned knowing he had to help. In the 2004 “Rapid Assessment of Cataract Surgical Services Study” presented to the Community Eye Health Conference in Guatemala City, the National Vision 2020 Committee of Guatemala reported that 4.1 percent of Guatemalans over the age of 50 (62,467 people) are blind from cataract with vision worse than 20/200. VOSH/PA estimates 114,000 children still need glasses within its target population of 1.4 million, and an estimated 4,800 of them need surgical care.
The main barriers to accessing eye care remain cost, geographic distance to facilities and the lack of governmental aid. For example, the government doesn’t provide vision screening for children in schools or public health centers. The cost of glasses—$60 minimum—is often two times the monthly income of an indigent family. The cost of eye surgery—at a minimum of $100 per procedure—is out of reach. Even if eyecare services were affordable, transportation costs are prohibitive for the majority of Guatemalans who live in rural departments—or regions —located up to 12 hours away by bus. To address the problem, grants totaling $1.7 million funded the establishment of three fully equipped clinics.
In 1997, VOSH/PA first established support for the collective Pescatore Eye Association in honor of Catholic missionary and Villanova University alumnus Vincent Pescatore, who founded orphanages in Central America as well as the first regional eye clinic. The Pescatore Eye Hospital was established in 1998 in Peten, the most rural of Guatemala’s 22 departments on the northern tier, located 12 hours by bus from Guatemala City.
The second phase of VOSH/PA’s mission was completed in 2000: The Jutiapa Clinic serves more than 450,000 rural people. In November 2005, the clinic moved from its leased space to the new St. John the Baptist Hospital. The third phase came to fruition in 2003 with the opening of Visualiza in Guatemala City. It serves the city’s population of 2.5 million. Thanks to a 2005 grant from the International Eye Foundation, Visualiza will become a “demonstration center” where Latin American doctors can learn first-hand how to establish a “social service eye program” by providing quality high-volume services to the poor.
Tragically, Pescatore died in a plane crash en route to building a new orphanage in Honduras shortly after the inception of the first eye clinic. His widow, Zulena, recently moved to Long Island, N.Y., with their five children. The full-time doctors down there scout patients who need eyecare, then Hauler and his team help diagnosis them once they arrive, providing basic non-surgical needs. All surgeries are done by full-time in-country staff, sometimes the same day. “It’s a partnership, really,” Hauler says.
VOSH/PA fundraises, solicits and ships donated ophthalmic and surgical supplies, frames and lenses and equipment, and organizes the mission trips. In all, they raised $282,000 last year, of which $15,000 came from statewide Lions and Rotary groups.
Much work remains. On the agenda is the nation’s first school-based screening of some 86,400 children in the Peten and Guatemala City departments over a three-year period that began in July 2005. It’ll then share the results with the Guatemalan Ministries of Education and Health to encourage a nationwide government-sponsored school-screening program.
It’s about more than aid, though. It’s about empowerment, says Hauler. One more success story provides another eye opener: Maria, now 8, was 2 when Hauler diagnosed her with retinoblastoma, an eye cancer. She had her bad eye surgically removed, but it took six years before her family had enough money to pay for an artificial eye, so for six years, she grew her bangs longer on that side of her face.
In this country, such congenital eye diseases are detected and corrected immediately after birth. “Down there, even if you detect it, they can’t afford to fix it,” Hauler says. “When I get back from a trip, I feel richer. They say, ‘Thank you.’ But I say, ‘No, thank you.’”
For more information on VOSH/PA, visit voshpa.com.