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Rotary volunteers ready thousands of pairs of glasses for Mexicans

Sight for poor eyes

Kurt Wilkening and his friends will carry some unusual baggage when they fly to Mexico on Saturday.

Instead of the usual tourist paraphernalia, the Medford optometrist and a dozen companions will lug several thousand pairs of used glasses to the sun-drenched city of Colima. The group will spend a week there, bringing better sight to hundreds of people who have no access to eye doctors or glasses.

Wilkening's crew will carry enough optometric equipment to set up an impromptu eye clinic in the city of 200,000 people, which lies about halfway between Mazatlan and Acapulco. People who come to the clinic ' mostly peasant farmers and villagers from the countryside ' will receive an eye exam and glasses that match their needs as closely as possible.

Their needs are very basic, said Wilkening, who's making his fourth trip to Colima. The major thing we find ourselves dispensing is over-the-counter reading glasses.

We give them a &

36;1.95 pair of reading glasses they had no idea could help them, and suddenly they're productive family members again.

Wilkening and his party will travel under the auspices of the Bear Creek Valley Rotary Club, which supports the project as part of its commitment to Rotary International's World Community Service program. Other Rotary clubs in the region support their own international service projects (such as Medford Rogue Rotary's medical mission to Kamchatka, Russia) or provide financial support to other clubs' projects.

Volunteers pay their own airfare and expenses. Wilkening's crew this year includes mostly Rotary members and their spouses, many of whom have made the trip before.

We get more out of it than we leave there, said LeAnn Mobley of Medford, who's making her third trip to Colima along with her husband, Tim. That's what keeps us going back.

They've sung to us, she said. They've blessed us. It's a powerful experience.

Their appreciation is overwhelming, Tim Mobley said. We keep going back because it feels so good.

Each time Wilkening and his crew go south, they carry glasses that have been collected by Lions clubs during the past 12 months. The glasses are cleaned, sorted by prescription, labeled and packed in boxes to make them easily accessible when the clinic sets up in Colima. With this year's collection of 3,000 pairs, they'll have more than 9,000 glasses total, so there are often lenses that match, or come very close to matching, each patient's needs.

Over the years, Wilkening has learned to organize the clinic's workflow to serve as many people as possible. The volunteers conduct a rudimentary medical history for each patient, take blood pressure readings, do vision exams, and dispense a pair of glasses ' all in less than 2 minutes when things are running smoothly.

The clinic has gotten better every time we've gone, he said, noting that the volunteers served more than 900 people last year, and hope to serve more than 1,000 on this trip.

Of course, things never run smoothly for long.

It's always an adventure, Wilkening said. There's a certain amount of ingenuity that goes into these trips. Something always breaks.

You're winging it all the time. Things happen that are unforeseen. I enjoy the challenge of making it work.

Wilkening's inspiration for AmigoVision came four years ago when he heard a presentation about another service project in Colima. He'd worked briefly in international service years ago, but found himself too busy with work and family to find time to organize something on his own.

I finally decided to make time to do it, he said, and pitched the idea to his Rotary club.

People who go with him often learn from those they serve, said Kathy Mustard, who's making her second trip with Wilkening, along with her husband, Tom.

They made me appreciate all the things I'm able to do, Mustard said. If I need reading glasses I can go buy them. For somebody to go 20 years without being able to read or sew because they couldn't afford a pair of reading glasses was just mind-boggling.

They made me aware of what it takes to add quality to your life, Mustard said. For them it was just to be able to see. For us, a lot of people get caught up in wanting a nicer car or a nicer house. Most of us already have all the material trappings we need for a good life.

From left, LeAnn Mobley, Tim Mobley and Kurt Wilkening sort through eyeglasses bound for Mexico through a program sponsored by the Bear Creek Valley Rotary Club. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven