Okanagan optician delivers eyeglasses to Cuba

Catherine Goheen able to navigate through government bureaucracy to provide needed help to Cuban people

Catherine Goheen provides a pair of eyeglasses to a Cuban grandmother doing the family's laundry. The woman says she will now be able to mend the children's clothes.

Catherine Goheen provides a pair of eyeglasses to a Cuban grandmother doing the family's laundry. The woman says she will now be able to mend the children's clothes.

They might have taken a little longer to get there than expected, but the shipment of used eyeglasses taken to Cuba earlier this year by Okanagan optician Catherine Goheen have reached their intended destination.

“(There were) the usual bureaucratic challenges when we got into the airport at 9 p.m. We spent two hours discussing with the official there that these glasses are not for sale and they are going to be donated to the hospital,” said Goheen. “It took two months for them to be released. The hospital now has them and we are back.”

Dealing with the government bureaucracy to get the glasses through is nothing new for Goheen, especially in Cuba, where she observed their tight customs controls on a previous trip.

“The hospital had to come in and fill out all the papers, which I am sure had to be stamped by 20 other people,” said Goheen. “Most Third World countries make a lot of jobs with paperwork.”

While it might have taken some time to get the main four suitcases filled with glasses into the hands of the hospital, Goheen was still able to distribute a few as she travelled.

“We gave up and left Havana and bicycled towards the Viñales, which is a valley of agriculture,” she said. “Fortunately, in one of my carryons I had kept quite a few reading glasses.

“I had quite a nice selection, so I was able to hand out quite a few pairs to the farmers and rural people that just don’t get to the cities and don’t have cash.”

The farmers did, however, have things like grapefruit and tobacco, which they tried to press on Goheen as a thank you for the glasses. But even if she had wanted to accept their gifts, travelling by bicycle meant she didn’t want to carry any more weight than she had to.

While Cuba has a good health care system, that doesn’t extend to the frames. And because of the U.S. embargo, that means frames can be very expensive.

“They have a very good medical system, they can receive lenses free, but when you look at the frames, I have seen them for sale for $80 and $120,” said Goheen. By comparison, she said, doctors and nurses are only making $20-$30 a month. “So you can imagine how difficult it is to find the frames.”

That makes the donated eyeglasses doubly useful in Cuba, she continued.

“If they are unable to find the right prescription, they may have to pop out the lenses and the government will put in the correct prescription for them,” said Goheen. And she adds, it’s all due to the generosity of Okanagan residents.

“Some people even bought new reading glasses and donated them. Every single day, between the Penticton Dr. Specs Optical and the one in Kelowna, we receive a pair or two of glasses,” said Goheen. “People in the Okanagan make a difference all over the world and they do so without asking a thing in return.”