Optician sets sights on African mission

For 16 years now, Okanagan optician Catherine Goheen has been packing some extra suitcases when she heads out on her annual pilgrimage.

Catherine Goheen provides eyeglasses donated in the Okanagan to a local villager on a previous trip to Vietnam.

Catherine Goheen provides eyeglasses donated in the Okanagan to a local villager on a previous trip to Vietnam.

For 16 years now, Okanagan optician Catherine Goheen has been packing some extra suitcases when she heads out on her annual pilgrimage.

That’s because each of these pilgrimages is to deliver used eyeglasses donated by Okanagan residents to missions working in developing countries, where  restoring someone’s failing eyesight can help them return to work and support their families.

Goheen estimates the glasses from the Okanagan have directly helped some 16,000 people.

“That’s not how it has affected their children or their grandparents, or the AIDS orphans they have taken in. That’s just the people wearing the glasses,” she said. “As a community, we have changed peoples’ lives in 20 countries around the world. And significantly changed them.”

Leaving in mid-April, Goheen hopes to take four suitcases full of glasses to Swaziland, one of the African countries worst hit by the AIDS crisis. She will be turning them over to the Luke Commission there, who have a system for dispensing the glasses.

Many children have been orphaned by the AIDS crisis, resulting in grandparents ending up taking over care and support of the children. Many of the glasses, Goheen expects, will end up with those grandparents.

“If they can see close they can continue weaving or sewing or whatever to keep their jobs, and that allows the kids to finish going to school,” said Goheen, adding that is one of the reasons why she is hoping to see a lot of reading glasses come in. While many of the glasses are dug out of the forgotten bottoms of drawers, some people have been known to head to the dollar stores and buy up glasses to donate.

“Often people will give money, but that is sort of like giving somebody a fish,” said Goheen, referring to the ancient cliché. “Giving them a pair of glasses empowers them to work.”

Goheen will leave the suitcases with the mission, but she will hold back some of the reading glasses to go in her backpack as she travels through the area, for distribution in the smaller towns and villages she passes through. This trip includes not only Swaziland but also travels through two other African countries.

In Mozambique, she will be helping Rotarians by evaluating a program designed for AIDS orphans. A Canadian Rotary Club has allotted money to help with the nutrition of the orphans, which will in turn help the AIDS medicines work better. Goheen will check out the operation of the program, making sure the food money benefited the children as intended, before travelling on to Malawi.

“It is such a selfish thing to do. There is no high that can compare to watching peoples’ faces light up, people that couldn’t see close and thought they had lost that for life,” said Goheen. “To put a pair of reading glasses on, that allows them to go back to work … it’s just the biggest high you can experience.”

Glasses can be donated at the Dr. Spec’s Optical dispensary in Penticton Plaza.