Hope Alliance volunteers travel to Africa to provide free vision care | ParkRecord.com

Hope Alliance volunteers travel to Africa to provide free vision care

Park City nonprofit sees success in efforts

Even though they're a month and almost 9,000 miles removed, Gage Farinacci, a Vail Resorts employee, and Prince, a Ugandan living near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, still talk.

"He just sends me these one word or one sentence e-mails that are just very basic. And he's not asking for anything, he just says 'hey, I was just thinking about you' or 'hey, how's it going?' It's great," Farinacci says.

While people in rural southwestern Uganda might have access to e-mail, Facebook and Instagram, they lack consistent vision care.

Farinacci wanted to make a dent in that disparity, and traveled there last month with The Hope Alliance, a Park City-based nonprofit which specializes in providing free vision care and optical supplies to underserved populations. Prince was one of more than a thousand people who received vision care from the organization during the trip.

A major supporter of the Hope Alliance is the Kellermann Foundation, a Texas-based nonprofit which constructed a modern clinic to serve Bwindi's population which the Hope Alliance used as a base to conduct their latest expedition.

Julia Lippert, a television production assistant and Hope Alliance volunteer who has been to the region before, said the changes she witnessed between now and four years ago have been "crazy."

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"The hospital is reaching so many different levels of healthcare now, and so to bring vision it felt like we're really reaching where they need to be," Lippert said.

Bwindi locals as well as people from neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania would line up around the block the nights prior to each session.

Volunteers collected about 800 pairs of used eyeglasses to distribute to Bwindi locals on the trip. In isolated, developing areas like Bwindi, vision care is exceedingly difficult to obtain and is often deprioritized in favor of more life-threatening health concerns.

"In some of these third-world countries we go to, health care is about broken bones and blood and guts and accidents and survival. It isn't about vision; it's just off the radar," Hope Alliance board of trustees chair Dell Fuller, a retired airline employee, said. "Nobody wears glasses. And if they do, they're not from there. They're visiting from somewhere else."

One Ugandan patient, a nearsighted boda boda motorcycle driver, had been transporting people and equipment without glasses, sometimes resulting in road accidents involving livestock.

"We didn't really find obviously the exact pair of glasses he needed because we just had these premade prescriptions," Lippert said. "But we found one for him and put them on him and he kind of gave a smile and a thumbs up and was like, 'Okay! I'm not going to hit people now!"

Vision care is not the only service the Hope Alliance renders; dental and medical expeditions are also conducted. The organization draws volunteers from a wide variety of vocations and locations.

Fuller emphasized that vision expeditions are designed to be accessible and that potential volunteers need not worry if they're lacking in medical expertise.

"We do more of the vision clinics than others for a lot of reasons… it doesn't require a high level of background knowledge or any special skills, it's real easy to train people to use the machines and do the legwork," Fuller said.

Fuller said the Uganda vision care trip is only one of many enterprises the Hope Alliance undertakes. In addition to going on missions in developing countries, they conduct regular clinics for refugee populations in the Salt Lake Valley, local Native American nations like the Navajo and the Goshutes, and plan on reaching out to Moab as well.

The organization also maintains a permanent outpost in Haiti.

The next international stop for the organization is a 10-day trip to the city of Quetzaltenango in Guatemala. Fuller said larger crowds may be in order in the heavily populated area.

Beyond that, Fuller plans to partner with the Kellermann Foundation to provide ongoing eye care at the Bwindi Community Hospital and also, hopefully, returning to Uganda.

The Hope Alliance can be found online at http://www.thehopealliance.org. The organization is still accepting applications for its upcoming Guatemala vision expedition, beginning Oct. 5 and lasting through Oct. 15.