Overseas, on one of the 7,107 islands of the Republic of the Philippines, live two brothers in their late 20s. Both had assumed they would be legally blind all of their lives, the world a blurry haze of shapes, light and colors. But one day a bus arrived. Inside they received free examinations and a gift that will change their lives forever: prescription glasses.
“You just can’t beat that,” said Dr. James Weyrich, a local optometric physician, of that moment and the many other miraculous moments he has experienced working as part of his non-profit organization, EyeCare WeCare Foundation Inc., based in Montesano, where he and his wife, Mary Ellen live. Weyrich is president of the Aberdeen Lions Club and the Lions Club International Foundation offered a grant to his “vision mission,” which most recently traveled to Olongapo City — adjacent to Subic Bay in the Province of Zambales.
The Aberdeen Lions Club contributed 80 percent of the matching funds, with other matching funds coming from all over, including: the Clearwater/Kalaloch Lions club, the Hoquiam Lions, the Central Park Lions, the Camas Lions Club, Washougal Lions Club, Hazel Dell Lions, Columbia Crest Lions Club, Longview Kelso Early Bird Lions Club and from Kathy Morrison, the district governor for Lions Clubs in this area. For more than 100 years, Lions clubs around the world have worked to prevent blindness and improve eyesight, particularly for those who are unable to afford the care themselves.
Weyrich, who himself had horrible eyesight as a child in Montesano, has been making missions to help the less fortunate for most of the past three decades. He met Mary Ellen in the Philippines — where she is from and where she was working on a medical mission called Mercy Ship. They have concentrated their efforts there ever since.
“She said why go all over the world when we have people here that need the help just as much,” said Weyrich.
From there they began to plan how they might make the most change, which led them to the idea of a mobile clinic.
“We realized if we built a (standing) clinic, only a few on that island could get to us,” said Weyrich.
Their operation now runs out of a 40-foot converted bus. For the past eight years the organization has visited the Philippines twice a year, covering more ground each time they arrive. They have provided eyeglasses to more than 23,000 people and just fewer than 500 cataract surgeries; on the last trip eight pterygium, or surfer’s eye (or usually a benign growth on the eye caused from sunlight exposure, dust and low humidity), surgeries were executed.
“When we started, 100 people a day was big, 70 was the average,” said Weyrich. “Now it is 400 a day.”
The volunteer staff currently consists of 30 individuals, seven of them from the Grays Harbor area and one from a neighboring state. The rest are volunteers, the majority of them registered nurses, from the Philippines who have come to the Weyrichs through word of mouth or their places of work. Most of them are from province of Negros Occidental, where the Weyrichs have a home and the EyeCare WeCare headquarters in the Philippines. The volunteers have many duties, including interpreting, referalls, assisting with the auto refractor and tonometer machines, as well as the dispensing of eyeglasses. Weyrich describes the entirety of the group as having a “love to serve.”
With a usual annual budget of $40,000, the Weyrichs say that the most recent year was difficult with funding of only $24,000, but that they still were able to make both trips.
“It was a tough year because we had to fill in the gaps ourselves,” said Weyrich, who made clear the mission requires a lot of dedication.
Both he and Mary Ellen work six days a week, at the Walmart vision center in Aberdeen. Their practice is located at Walmart, but it is independent from the company. They spend a lot of their time at home planning for the excursions and looking for funding; Mary Ellen writes most of the grant requests. All volunteers pay their own way, unless they receive a rare grant to cover airfare.
“This has to be a passion,” he said. The last trip to Ologapo, volunteers endured a 48-hour ferryboat ride round trip from the Negros Island to Luzon Island and then another six-hour ride by bus.
“It was well worth the trip because so many lives were changed,” said Weyrich.
It is a fulfilling endeavor despite the long trip as there is a great need for their services, said Weyrich, adding that there is a very big need for treatment of early cataracts in the area, where many work hard hours out in the equatorial sun without sun protection for most of their lives.
“Here (in the United States) the average age of getting cataracts is around 75. … In the Philippines it’s usually 40s or 50s,” he said, adding that the cases are also often much worse.
The rampant poverty of the area adds to the problem, with many lacking basic necessities, let alone decent medical services, or the ability to afford or find a pair of glasses.
Words can’t describe the feeling
The last trip, they were able to watch as a 72-year-old woman had a condition known as Nystagmus (constant rapid eye movements) corrected by carefully selected eyeglasses. Smiles and tears filled the room as her grandchildren and great-grandchildren watched her walk all on her own for the first time, without being led.
“… No one can put into words that experience,” said Weyrich. “You would have had to have been there.”
For information about volunteer openings and contribution possibilities, visit the foundation’s website at www.eyecarewecare.org.