Envisioning health A photographer changes subjects and lives through I Care International

By I Care International on Sep 01, 2006 at 09:47 AM in I Care International News

By Ashley Schwellenbach

General contractor Lance Kinney started an unexpected journey in 2004 when he began remodeling a house in Avila Beach. He asked the owner, Dr. Phil Ortiz, about his occupation, and the retired optometrist gave him a brochure for I Care International, an organization he had co-founded in 1989. Kinney took the brochure home. The next day, he returned to work with a financial donation for I Care International.

As he learned more about the organization, he decided that a financial donation simply wasn't enough, so he volunteered to accompany Ortiz on the organization's trip to Guatemala, where he could photograph the I Care International volunteers in action.

Kinney first became interested in photography after graduating from high school, when he decided to bring a camera with him on a trip to Europe. After moving to Carmel when he returned, Kinney attended workshops for photography, focusing on landscapes and surfing. Since then, photography's been an important pastime for him. He established Lance Kinney Photography in 1978 and participates in ongoing exhibits in Monterey and Carmel. But his artistic vision began to take a different shape during his trip to Guatemala, where, for the first time, he became interested in taking pictures of people.

Every year, I Care International takes one or two trips depending on how many eyeglasses they collect. On these missions, volunteers run an optometry clinic for about four days, treating an average of 2,000 people and providing many with their first pair of glasses.

"We generally go to remote areas," Kinney explained. "We look for people who really need the help. Most of the people have never seen any doctor of any sort. We're not political. We're not religious. It's important that we stay very independent. A lot of people go to these places for different reasons they have an agenda. All we're there for is to give people big smiles and lots of love and better eyesight. If we can. There are some people whose eyes are so bad we can't help them."

The volunteers publicize the fact that they'll be holding a clinic beforehand, and, by the time they arrive, the lines for the clinic can stretch for blocks. Many of the patients walk for several days to see them. Every visitor receives a complete examination, many receive glasses or sunglasses, and some receive cataract surgery or hearing aids.

It's difficult to prepare for 2,000 patients, ranging in age from newborns to 90-year-olds, many of whom have never received medical treatment. Still, volunteers come prepared with an estimated 10,000 pairs of eyeglasses. While traveling, each volunteer carries one bag of personal items and one bag of glasses or medical equipment.

On average, 20 to 25 volunteers attend each trip. Most of the volunteers are from Chicago, but in the past few years, Ortiz and Kinney have been working to establish a volunteer base in California as well. Because volunteers pay for their own airfare, food, and accommodations, I Care International tries to keep the expenses down by visiting places with cheaper airfare, such as Mexico and Central and South America. On average, each trip costs about $1,500. Very few of the volunteers have any background or training in medicine, but two to three optometrists volunteer their services each mission. Also, I Care International recruits optometry students to participate in missions, providing them with scholarships to cover the expenses.

"It shows them where the world is, in terms of eyes," Kinney explained. "It's nice, because they'll see diseases they never see here."

Though I Care optometrists pride themselves on conducting thorough examinations, their patients are usually not at all like those they treat in the United States. Many patients have never encountered medical equipment. Most make a living weaving or farming occupations that require good eyesight, but can also involve extensive exposure to the sun, wind, and heat.

"When I came back, it was as though a typhoon had hit me," Kinney said. "You see people who think they're blind and there's no way to change that and it's God's curse, and then you give them glasses, and, for the first time, they see their husband or wife and some start dancing and others start crying."

Since his initial mission, Kinney has been on two more trips one with I Care International and one with Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity. During his the latter mission, Kinney and the other volunteers stayed in the Amazon jungle as guests of the Peruvian army.

Each trip has renewed Kinney's commitment to I Care International. After the first trip, he offered to help establish an I Care International web site using his pictures from the trip. Given that he shoots between 3,000 and 5,000 photographs and around 15 hours of live footage per trip, Kinney had plenty of photographs to choose from. And, unlike his photographs prior to his involvement with I Care, his pictures are now dominated by people those he helps and the fellow volunteers who share his vision for a healthier world.

Currently, I Care International has plans to visit Costa Rica, Mexico, and possibly Africa. But before they can go anywhere, they need to collect the eyeglasses that change their patients' lives. To help raise funds and collect glasses, I Care International is hosting Visions of Color 2006, an evening that will include wine, dancing, and auctions at the Avila Bay Athletic Club on Sept. 16. Guests are invited to donate eyeglasses in any condition, keeping in mind that one person's spare pair could mean a world of difference to someone else.

"What we think is the worst in the world could be like a million dollars to somebody," Kinney said.

This year, a local business called Dioptics donated thousands of readers and sunglasses, and I Care volunteers are always looking for new ways to acquire glasses for patients. As Kinney helps I Care International refine other people's visions, he finds that his own changes along the way.

INFOBOX: U Care

On Sept. 16, I Care International is hosting its second annual benefit, Visions of Color 2006. The event takes place at the Avila Bay Athletic Club & Spa located on 6699 Bay Laurel Place. The evening, which runs from 6 to 9 p.m., features wine, hors d'oeuvres, dancing, and music by Louie Ortega. Both a silent and live auction will take place and a slideshow of Lance Kinney's photographs will be shown. Guests who bring a pair of eyeglasses will receive raffle tickets. Tickets cost $60 per person. Tickets can be purchased by calling 440-3433 or at the door. For more information about I Care International, visit www.icareinternational.org. Kinney's photographs will also be on display at the Len Lewis Gallery in Avila Beach and the Avila Bay Athletic Club & Spa in conjunction with the fundraiser. To view Lance Kinney's work visit www.lancekinney.com

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach reads under the covers. Up her prescription at aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com