Eyes for Africa: Iowans give the gift of sight - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Eyes for Africa: Iowans give the gift of sight

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -- As families gather around the table Thursday, most will take a moment to give thanks. But there is one blessing many people take for granted -- their sense of sight. According to the World Health Organization, more than 150 million people are struggling to get by with limited or no vision.

The global burden has a simple solution -- eyeglasses. And doctors, companies, and volunteers from Iowa are working to solve this problem at one Tanzanian school.

This story of a gift in Africa begins in Ames. A few years ago, Dr. Lou Scallon was looking for a way to give back, and stumbled upon an answer.

"There's a website where they post opportunities for eye surgeons all over the world, and one caught my eye. It was in Africa, and they needed somebody to help set up an eye clinic. And it turned out that clinic is being started by Dr. Denny and Paula Lofstrom," Scallon explained.

Paula Lofstrom also happens to be from Iowa, born and raised north of Waterloo. With help from many other volunteers, she and Scallon set out to open the only eye clinic in that part of Tanzania.

"We shipped a semi-load full of equipment," said Scallon. "Operating microscopes to do surgery, hospital beds, operating tables, all the equipment that's needed to set up an eye clinic."

But the shipment was delayed by a worker strike.

"Unfortunately we didn't have the equipment for them to do what they were there to do. So instead they did whatever they could do," Lofstrom recalled.

"I think I was expecting to be seeing a lot of people with cataracts. But I was shocked. That was not the typical thing we found. The big need was for people to have glasses," said Scallon.

Scallon was able to perform several surgeries using the equipment he had. He also worked with the area's only optometrist, Dr. Kadje, to do many regular eye exams. A few weeks later, Scallon returned to Iowa, but his work in Africa wasn't finished. Doctor Kadje had found a new project.

"One afternoon he came out to our house and said, Paula, I have a list of 97 kids who need glasses. Can you get them?" Lofstrom said.

The kids attend Mitindo Primary School. It opened in the 1950s, and began admitting blind students thirty years later. The original intent was to educate, but now it's become a harbor for kids with albinism.

"The witch doctors are very influential. They have convinced people that albino's are not quite human. And so it's okay to kill them. And they cut off their toes and fingers and wear them as talismans. Then they boil down the rest of their body and sell it as a magical potion," Lofstrom explained.

The kids at Mitindo are protected by armed guards, leaving them free to learn like any other student. But they're still faced with a major hurdle.

"A high percentage of people that are albinos need glasses to see properly, and they're also very sensitive to the sun," said Scallon.

The kids have big dreams, to become a teacher or open a bookstore. Which is why they're so focused on learning.

"I like English and Science," said 15 year-old Maneno Honock.

"I like all subjects, and I make good grades," 14 year-old Shukulani Mgeti said.

But to read or write, they need to use old, rudimentary Braille machines and paper.

"The majority of these kids are legally blind. They would not be able to function. They can't see five inches in front of them, much less five feet," said Karen Stotz of Pech Optical.

Pech Optical, in Sioux City, learned about the kids through Scallon, who is one of their regular clients. Scallon had been able to round up frames for the glasses, but getting the right lenses for nearly one hundred kids is not an easy, or cheap task.

"Retail, for polycarbonate lenses and the transitions... we're probably talking $150 dollars. And the frames are $50 to $150 for the children," Stotz said.

Pech signed onto the project, and prepared to work dozens of thick, powerful lenses into their regular assembly line. With help from yet another company, they added an additional benefit -- Transitions Lenses.

"One of the things about Transitions, it helps to deter bright lights. And albino children have no pigment, and so, consequently often times they have to squint to shut out that bright light, and it suppresses the...reduces the ability for their brain to tell their eyes what they're seeing," Stotz said.

Transitions provided base lenses for every one of the children. Pech took on the task of creating glasses that fit for kids halfway around the world. Then, it was up to the project's originator, Lofstrom, to deliver the gift.

"It is the high point of my term out there to bring the glasses to the kids and watch them react," said Lofstrom.

"Imagine those kids have never seen their mother, they've never seen their father. They haven't seen anything. So this is earth-shattering to them," said Stotz.

Their reaction was unforgettable.

"The first time, they didn't know what they were. Then the older kids picked up the envelope the glasses came in and realized they could see the writing," Lofstrom recalled. "The kids were outside taking them off, and putting them back on, watching them change in the sun."

The employees at Pech Optical and Dr. Scallon have not met the kids who's lives they've changed. But they're okay with that.

"We get to see the pictures and we know what this means to them," Stotz said.

And Lofstrom is honored to be at the beginning, and the end, of this circle of Iowans.

"It seems as though my whole life has led to this connection," she said.

Pech Optical has vowed to continue helping the kids at Mitindo Primary School as they grow and need new glasses. They're in the process of sending a second shipment to Tanzania. To learn how you can help the school, and the non-profit organization working in Tanzania, click here.

Online Reporter Colleen O'Shaughnessy

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