Volunteers for vision Optometrists Focused on International Eye Care for Needy

By I Care International on Jun 22, 2006 at 09:46 AM in I Care International News

By Christina Chapman; Staff Writer

Dr. Philip Ortiz holds a new style auto-refractor he is trying to purchase for I Care International. The old model on the table weighs more than 60 pounds and the group has to pay excess baggage fees when they fly. Ortiz is holding a fundraiser to buy a new auto-refractor and auto lens meter to read the prescription of donated glasses.

Whether it's a big city like Oaxaca City in Mexico, or a small village in Belize, when I Care International volunteers arrive, hundreds of people are lined up waiting to have their dreams of improved vision come true.

Mothers with babies on their hips, pre-teens and great-grandfathers all wait for hours for what is likely their only chance to be examined by a real doctor. Some come because their vision is so blurred they can't work, and others show up with more serious conditions, like reduced vision due to cataracts.

No matter the need, I Care International Inc. volunteers will do whatever they can to help.

"Some come and sleep overnight outside for glasses or some sort of medical attention," said Morris optometrist Dr. Philip Ortiz, co-founder of I Care.

Ortiz and the late Dr. Charles Cools created the nonprofit organization of hundreds of volunteers who travel around the world providing free eye exams, care and prescription glasses to thousands every year. Donated glasses are gathered all year long through local community organizations, churches and doctors' offices.

Sharing Education Gift

"I was lucky enough to get an education, and I wanted to share that," said Ortiz, who is the son of Mexican immigrants.

Since 1989, more than 200,000 people have been given eye exams and more than 400 have received cataract surgery. Volunteers have gone on about 64 missions, including three completed this year and three more planned for 2007.

For every trip, about 20 volunteers are needed and at least one lead doctor, but three or four doctors are preferred. Currently, I Care has about 180 members, but all of them cannot make a trip yearly, so there's a great need for doctors.

"Some of the places we go don't have doctors at all or, if they do, the people cannot afford to see them," Ortiz said.

But it is more than just doctors that make the trips a success. In addition to exams and procedures, volunteers are needed to register patients, log prescriptions and to find the appropriate glasses. Volunteers pay for their own expenses to attend a mission.

Evolving Efforts

"The trips are always changing, depending on the need. We may go to the same place, but it could be under a different government, or we may go to a new site," said Jesse Gutierrez, executive director of I Care.

Volunteers also are needed locally to help prepare for the missions. Before teams can leave, all donated glasses need to be cataloged so they can be found easily to fill a prescription.

This year, I Care teams went to Antigua, Guatemala and Durango, Mexico, where the clinics treated more than 1,700 patients each, Gutierrez said.

On Sunday, I Care will have its annual meeting at Maria's Restaurant in Morris, where members will go through the global requests for help and discuss the 2007 trips. The organization tries to conduct at least three trips a year, usually in Mexico, Central and South America.

"We get more out of it than we give," Ortiz said.

Updating Equipment

But in order to keep giving their best to people in need, I Care needs updated equipment. On Friday, the organization is holding a "Visions of Color 2006" fundraiser to raise money for such needs.

On previous trips, teams have brought large autorefractors weighing more than the airline-allowed 50 pounds and costing the organization extra money on already expensive trips. If the organization could purchase a couple of modern hand-held autorefractors, both money and muscle strain could be saved, Ortiz said. In addition, an autolensmeter, which automatically reads the prescriptions of donated glasses, would also improve the organization's services.

The goal for the fundraising event is $10,000 to $12,000. The night will include food and drink, entertainment by Tony Kidonakis and a live and silent auction. Featured auction items include a one-week vacation to Ortiz's own getaway in Avila Beach, Calif., including the house, flight and a car; a champagne cruise on the Illinois River; and restaurant certificates. In addition, photographs from one of the Guatemala missions by award-winning photographer Lance Kinney will be on display and for sale. If the event's goal is reached, extra funds will be used to conduct I Care services locally.

For more information on the event or the organization, to donate or volunteer, call (815) 942-8004.