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Station: a clear vision

Doug and Sharyn Higginson helped bring vision to people in Ecuador - Janice Hayward
Doug and Sharyn Higginson helped bring vision to people in Ecuador
— image credit: Janice Hayward

Doug and Sharyn Higginson are neither optometrists nor opticians.

But 10 years ago the Mill Bay couple began an adventure that opened eyes — their own and many others half a world away.

Through south Cowichan optometrist, Rotarian, and volunteer Dr. Trevor Miranda they first became acquainted with one of Miranda’s favourite causes — the Third World Eye Care Society. TWECS is a Vancouver-based, non-profit organization that travels to third-world countries performing eye examinations and dispensing eyeglasses in communities with no resources or funding available for eye care.

Fast-forward to 2011.

During a sunrise Rotary meeting, Miranda reintroduced Doug to the idea of volunteering abroad. That was the beginning of what some refer to as giving back and others call paying it forward. Since then, their volunteer efforts have taken Doug to Nicaragua, Ecuador, and the Philippines, and Sharyn to Ecuador. They have found new depth of meaning in the words “clear vision.”

Doug volunteered for the Nicaragua project in 2011 and both travelled to Ecuador in November 2013. Sharyn, inspired by Doug, was thrilled at the unexpected opportunity to join the team.

“It was just by a fluke that I actually got to go, as somebody else had pulled out at the last minute,” she said.

Volunteers for TWECS contribute time, money, energy, empathy, and ingenuity. The Higginsons own a business and were no different.

“Organizing life to get away is a big challenge,” he said, but somehow he made it so.

Being in a foreign country and on a mission meant coping with personal and project-related challenges. Despite knowing what to expect, Doug and Sharyn nevertheless had to adjust to dietary and cultural differences, frenetic schedules, and sanitary surprises.

Maintaining personal health was paramount. Volunteers travelled from hotel to the eye exam venue with a personal supply of TP and hand sanitizer.

“You do not want to get sick and become a burden to the project,” explained Doug.

He added that one less person on a station equates to extra work for the others. Besides, it’s no fun to be ill that far from home.

Each day the project venue was sectioned into six stations: registration, visual acuities (eye chart exams), triage, auto refraction (approximate measurement of a person’s prescription), special testing (for diseases and other medical eye problems), and dispensing. The Higginsons supported the optometrists and opticians by conducting visual acuities and autorefractions, as well as dispensing prescription glasses.

The Higginsons agreed TWECS volunteers inherently have a certain kind of personality. Every team member focuses on the same goal — help as many people as possible in what little time they have.

In destitute and underprivileged communities, it was no surprise that a project challenge aroused the team spirit. If there were not enough translators for each of the six clinic stations, volunteers learned key phrases in the new language; if one station (registration, for instance) had completed for the day, volunteers moved to another. If optometrists in special testing required a darker room, volunteers improvised a fix.

Doug and Sharyn were two of a team of 21 volunteers in Ecuador. They saw miracles happen and returned with a rich store of memories.

“When you make a difference, you don’t forget that … maybe we just don’t get to do that enough in our world today,” suggested Doug.

TWECS attributes its success to its volunteers, generous monetary donations, optometry equipment donations, and the thousands of eyeglass donors. Under the direction of optometrist Dr. Marina Roma-March and her husband Derrick March, TWECS has completed 25 projects worldwide since 1994.

While she was in Ecuador, the ruinous Typhoon Haiyan smashed Roma-March’s Philippine homeland. Doug Higginson found himself on another TWECS project in January 2014, just two months after Ecuador, as TWECS mobilized to fill a gap in the devastated city of Tacloban.

The couple eagerly awaits its next TWECS opportunity.

“I now feel the need to continue supporting missions like TWECS,” said Doug. “I firmly believe we are all in this together on so many levels. The world is so small and our neighbours are now the poor in third-world countries. Not to help is to our own peril.”

— Janice Hayward

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