Flying to Haiti With Our Mission in Sight
Updated: Aug 30
By Katherine Holekamp, John Burroughs School, St. Louis, MO
Clutching my aunt's hand, I stared out the small, oval window at the turquoise expanse below. I tried to slow my breathing as the small propeller plane battled every gust of wind. During that last week of spring break 2014, we were finally arriving at our destination. As we flew over the Caribbean Sea on our way to the small island of La Gonave in Haiti, I reminded myself of the steps it took to get here.
A year earlier I met Sonja and Jerry Dickherber. Twenty years ago on the impoverished, tiny island, they founded a mission that provided local children with free education, shoes, and meals. The five-acre campus housed a church, a medical clinic, a school, and simple homes for their employees. The medical clinic focused on pediatric care but also brought a dentist to the island from time to time who provided free dental care to anyone that came. The Dickherbers generously supported local people through jobs and supplies. They had done everything for these people. Except eyecare.
Inspired by their hard work, my family and I immediately started planning. My aunt, my mother, my brother, and I networked throughout our community to collect as many eyeglasses as possible. With the help of her Presbyterian church, my aunt received hundreds of used glasses. My mother, an ophthalmologist, reached out to large companies for generous donations of brand new glasses. Finally, my brother and I organized efforts at our schools. I was in fifth grade. I had never stood out at school, made announcements, or championed a cause. Soon, I was contacting teachers, placing collection boxes in hallways, and making school-wide announcements.
Within three months, we had collected over one thousand pairs of glasses.
The donated glasses had to be cleaned, measured with a lensometer, and individually placed in sandwich-sized Ziploc bags labelled with the prescription. Our ultimate goal was to match the refractive error of each person in La Gonave, Haiti with a pair of glasses from St. Louis, Missouri. To reach that end, we borrowed an auto-refractor from a local Baptist church and a manual refraction kit from an ophthalmology practice. We watched YouTube videos to learn how to refract.
Before departing St. Louis for Haiti, we bought a smorgasbord of non-verbal games (we do not speak Creole) to play with the schoolchildren, organized all of the glasses into larger Ziploc bags based on correction, and fit the supplies into industrial sized tubs. With the crates sealed against theft with zip ties, we headed to the airport for what would become a life changing week to be repeated three more times in subsequent years.
As an eleven-year-old at the time, I was unaware of the incredible impact these mission trips had on those we helped. Today, as a sixteen-year-old with a global perspective, I realize that giving an adult man a simple pair of reading glasses allows him to read blueprints, enabling a high paying construction job. Similarly, elderly women can support themselves through sewing, as reading glasses allow them to see small, delicate stitches. Fitting near-sighted children with prescription glasses propels them to excel in school, finally able to see the chalkboard.
Even though my mother is an ophthalmologist, nothing we did during our three mission trips requires a medical degree. Anyone can reach out to large optical companies for donations of eyeglasses. Anyone can collect glasses in their community. Anyone can borrow a lensometer and measure glasses. Anyone can look up YouTube videos on how to perform a refraction. Anyone can make a difference. My mission trips to Haiti have been incredibly influential in my life, changing the way I view the world. If you have the resources, a vision mission is the perfect way to get involved in global health. All it takes is a little hard work and the drive to help others.