Jay Copp 2014-05-13 12:44:47
Not every project saves a child, prolongs lives, pioneers a mission model or shatters mindsets and barriers regarding the blind. But some do. A Routine Eye Screening That Was Anything But Bloomfield is a picturesque New England-style community in western New York. Less than 1,400 people live here, and residents are quick to point out that “everyone knows everyone else.” So Mike Bartle saw one familiar face after another when he screened schoolchildren last spring. He certainly knew Brianna Leitten, 6. Her older sister and Bartle’s daughter played on the same softball team. Brianna would have stood out in any case. “She’s just a bundle of energy, a real happy-go-lucky kid,” says Bartle, a member of the Bloomfield Lions since 1997. Bartle screened Brianna, and what he saw was startling. “There was a huge discrepancy in the size of the pupils. Something was not right. It was pretty blatant,” he says. The Lions recommended she get an eye exam. When Bartle ran into Brianna a month or so later, her left eye was completely gone. Brianna’s parents, Dorie and Gerry, had taken Brianna to see eye doctors after the screening. The news was not good. Brianna had either Coats’ disease or a tumor. Delay could result in the spread of cancer. “We were in shock,” says Gerry. “But you do what you have to for your children.” Surgeons removed her eye. A post-surgical biopsy showed the problem indeed was a tumor. “We made the right decision,” says Dorie. Before long, Brianna sported a prosthetic eye, which Lions partly funded. “It’s identical to the other eye. It matches perfectly,” says Dorie. Brianna, a gymnast, is back doing cartwheels. In fact, two days after surgery, Dorie found her doing a headstand on the couch. Even though she has no physical restrictions, that was too much for mom, who told her to cease and desist. The local Messenger Post ran a story on Brianna with the headline “Eye screening helps save Bloomfield girl’s life.” Just 64 percent of the families had signed the Lions’ consent form for the screening of Brianna and her classmates. The Leittens encourage area schools to attach a copy of Brianna’s story to notices of upcoming screenings. “People go to the dentist. They need to regularly see the eye doctor too. You can live without your teeth,” says Dorie. Leittens’ friends rallied around them and their benefactors, the Lions. A friend of the couple organized a can drive for the Bloomfield Lions to purchase their own screening camera instead of sharing one with other Lions clubs. Mourning the recent loss of his own mother, a customer of Gerry’s construction business gave the Leittens $5,000 toward the camera. Here’s the thing even about small towns: you may know everybody. But sometimes, owing to a family in crisis and how folks respond, you can get to know them better. Before the screening, Bartle and the Leittens shared the small talk typical among parents who are acquainted with one another through their children. That’s all changed. “It’s a friendship now,” says Bartle. “We’ve gotten to know each other better. We’ve bonded.” Fun and Games and Much, Much More at Weekend Camp Kevin Roe watched with wide eyes as people without sight played cards, competed in disc golf and then handled dinner duties. Blind youths and adults adeptly grilled hamburgers at the weekend camp held by District 25 A in northwest Indiana. “They do things a little differently. They touch the meat and push it down to tell it’s done,” says Roe, a Winamac Lion. Nor did the lack of vision preclude baiting a fish hook, erecting a tent or clobbering a baseball. His own surprise at the capabilities of the blind left Roe, a Lion for 21 years and a past district governor, a tad sheepish. “They can do the things we do. It really was an eye opener,” he says. “I had thought they probably just sat around and didn’t do much.” But while those with sight marveled at the abilities of those without it, some at the camp instead believed the latter actually sold themselves short. As they saw it, the purpose of the Fishing for Life weekend was to gently nudge those with blindness out of their comfort zone and toward new endeavors and an increased selfconfidence and self-reliance. Christopher Meyer, 21, a full-time college student who has applied for an internship in Germany, immediately picked up on the reticence and reserve of the two dozen blind children and adults at the camp. “On the first day they were in a shell. They weren’t ready to engage. They had a passive mentality,” says Meyer, self-assured and energetic. “The blind are taught to sit back. You have to try new things. Experience is the best teacher.” Meyer, who has been blind since birth, served as a mentor for other camp participants. “I felt I could help them break through by modeling it,” he says. About 15 Lions helped at the weekend camp, held on the spacious farm of Lions Butch and Rhonda Weston near Westville. (“There must have been a sign for a free lunch,” quips Roe.) Other volunteers came from the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the National Federation for the Blind, and even a professor from Butler University helped out. On the surface, the camp was a typical outdoor event for the blind featuring sports and activities such as Beep baseball, fishing and hay rides and multiple occasions for camaraderie and new friendships among peers. But on a deeper level the weekend involved bridging gaps and stereotypes, a kind of cultural exchange among the sighted and non-sighted and even among the blind in which perceptions and habits are set aside and richer perspectives and experiences take root. Never was that more evident than during a nighttime hike through the woods. Meyer’s designated role on the trek was to lead those with blindness, but he also helped show Lions the way. “The Lions were supposed to lead the non-blind through the dark forest. Being in the dark was a pretty normal situation for me. But they–to use an expression– were stuck in the dark,” says Meyer. So, really, how can a person without sight navigate thick undergrowth? “I felt the path. I kept my cane down with a light grip,” he says. “It’s either the path or no path. It’s a matter of developing a sense of touch.” During the day, campers played golf with discs and holes that emit sound. Camper Jacob Ayers had designed the game. “He calls himself the president and CEO [of blind disc golf]. He’s very bright. I was watching him, and you could just see the wheels turning,” says Roe. Campers also congregated at a pond. Bursting with excitement with each tug on the line, a boy of 12 or 13 snagged 27 bluegills. A young girl surprisingly discovered a new obsession. “She put up a big fight. She wanted to have nothing to do with fishing. But her father stuck with it,” says Roe. “By the end of the day you couldn’t drag the pole out of her hand.” By the end of the weekend new friendships were forged and an easy familiarity had taken hold among camp participants and volunteers. In just two days nicknames had superseded given names for some. With his casual, carefree attitude and blonde locks, Meyer was hailed as “Surfer Dude.” Explains Roe, “He just fits that part of a man on the beach with a surf board.” Not everything went perfectly at the camp, yet that was part of the plan, too. Putting up the tent led to a smashed finger or two. “It’s like what the instructor from the School for the Blind said, they’d never learn otherwise,” says Roe. Bringing Modern Eye Care To a Timeless Place To find it, wander through the dusty, timeless streets, teeming with Mayan Indians in shaded stalls selling homegrown vegetables, aromatic native foods and boldly-colored clothes. Enter the sacred adobe church, dating from the 15th-century. Stroll past the throngs of solemn worshipers, silently praying at all hours of the day. It’s right next to an eerily quiet room, once ordinary and nondescript but now a revered chapel with walls stained reddish-brown, the dried blood of an Oklahoma priest slain four decades ago in the civil war. Deep inside the old church, a testament to faith in service and the efficacy of modern technology, is a well-equipped eye clinic. The permanent eye clinic abutting the chapel includes a phoropter, a slit lamp and keratometer–sophisticated, eye care equipment found in cities like Tulsa and Oklahoma City. “We wanted to bring metropolitan standards of eye care to a mission trip. We wanted to bring it up to the level of care you find in Ada,” says John Garber of the Ada Lions Club in Oklahoma. His club established the clinic at the church in Santiago Atitlan in November. Four times annually Garber and other Lions will travel to Guatemala to dispense glasses and do eye exams. Garber worked for 30 years as an optometrist with Indian Health Services, part of the U.S. government. He still works for the Chickasaw Indian Nation. A cheerful, energetic 63-year-old with a bushy mustache, Garber describes himself as “a guy who looks like Groucho Marx.” His answer as to why Santiago was selected for the clinic is similarly lighthearted. “Well, we didn’t have to change time zones. No jet lag,” he says. But the real reason has to do with two new hospitals, a long history of altruism, and, ultimately, a bond felt between people stronger than the gap in material prosperity and geographic distance. A few years ago Garber, while on an eye care mission to a town near Santiago, learned of a new hospital in Santiago. Garber, who had done missions in Central America, Alaska and one of the Fiji Islands, understood that the hospital would welcome the presence of an eye clinic and an eye clinic could refer patients with cataracts and other more serious problems to the hospital. He also knew that the Chickasaw Nation in Ada had just built its own hospital. When he returned to Ada, Governor Bill Anoatubby, the leader of the Chickasaw Nation, quickly consented to letting him use the ophthalmic equipment no longer needed because of the new hospital, and his Lions club decided to support a permanent clinic. Ada Lions have since supplied the clinic with an autorefractor and other equipment. The clinic hands out glasses with lenses that are “the exact prescription,” says Garber. (Missions commonly provide lenses, especially to adults, that are a close match.) The vision of the Mayans is tested, and Garber and crew return with glasses, purchased from an online optical company, on the next trip. A network of churches in Ada underwrite the cost of the glasses. The Mayans also get to choose a frame from a set of pictures. “The young men and women especially don’t want to wear Elton John glasses. They know what people are wearing,” says Garber. Elmy, a brilliant 16-year-old local girl who speaks Mayan, English and Spanish, one of the very few trilingual people there, serves as a translator. Sometimes no translation is needed. Some Mayans know common English words, probably from movies they watch. A 19- year-old woman put on her first part of glasses and softly said “wow.” Garber relishes each trip. “The people are wonderful. They’re happy. Ben Franklin said a rich person is someone who has no wants. I don’t think he’d consider them [the Mayans] poor,” he says. He returns to the United States with his own sense of contentment. “You assume they need you. But you need them,” he says. “They bless us more than we bless them.” Before the Ada Lions came along, you could get nearly everything in Santiago Atitlan–including handcrafted shawls and ethnic food–except decent eye care. Lions Pool Their Talents for Campers Lions in St. Louis first took control of a wooded, 273- acre plot of land outside the crowded city in 1926. Through the decades Scouts learned how to pitch a tent here, special needs children hiked on handicapped accessible trails and underprivileged city youths shook off the sweltering summer heat by swimming in a 5-acre lake. After years of absence, members of the St. Louis South Side Lions Club and other Lions roam again on the hilly timberland. Children still need a place apart amid the charms of nature and the allure of outdoor activities. But today they need a place away from fast food restaurants, cell phone and game cartridges. The camps here today revolve around prolonging and enriching lives through encouraging a healthier lifestyle. The South Side club no longer owns the grounds, but its members are vital to the success of the camps here. “We would not have survived without their help,” says Jean Huelsing, who runs the place. “We’ve become a society of ‘what’s in it for me.’ That’s not who they are.” Huelsing and her family founded Camp Jump Start to teach children and adults how to lead a healthier lifestyle. Her nonprofit, the Living Well Foundation, doesn’t run a “fat camp.” Instead, campers undergo a “healthy lifestyle immersion” to not only lose weight but also to take to heart the need to take care of one’s body and soul. Camp Jump Start is testament to the passion for health of Huelsing, a longtime nurse who saw the destructive effects on youths of fatty foods and lack of exercise. The camp also owes a lot to Lions, who persistently improved the property and supported various enterprises on it since the 1920s. The property’s complex history includes the South Side Lions donating it to the Boy Scouts in the 1920s, buying it back in the 1960s and using it for Scouts and the Missouri School for the Blind, among others, and leasing it to a group that assisted those with mental and physical challenges in the 1970s. The Living Well Foundation purchased the property in 2008 in a deal involving the Lions and the Wyman Center, which has provided camping for underprivileged youth since 1898. Huelsing quickly realized whose considerable footsteps she continuously walked in: an old sign near the camp entrance displayed the Lions logo. Then she learned the level of Lions’ commitment when she discovered in a trash can pages upon pages of the camp’s history. So she reached out to the club a couple of years ago, and Lions came out in force. They painted the swimming pool, sprayed for bugs and cleaned the cabins. They raised funds for health equipment and flipped burgers (no salt or cheese!) at camp barbecues. When the pool’s pump broke just two days before a summer session, Lions stayed 18 hours to fix it. Tom Beetz, club president and a volunteer at a camp barbecue, admired the camaraderie and contentment of campers. “I think these kids are building up their selfesteem. A lot of them have been bullied. Here they can get together and make friends,” he says. Adults often enroll in weekend camps, and children come for a summer camp, which can be as long as eight weeks. Last summer 166 campers lost a total of 2,512 pounds, says Huelsing. The average mile time dropped to 10:32 from 15:18. A dietician is on staff, and support groups on underlying issues such as divorce, grief over loss and anxiety are overseen by a psychologist and run by her doctoral-level students. The camp is adept at almost covertly ingraining healthier choices. Moderation, not deprivation, is one of Huelsing’s mottos. “The best way you learn is when you don’t realize you are being taught. You learn while at play,” says Huelsing. Huelsing began the camp with a sense of mission, and she runs its operations with a fervor. Her family cashed out its home and other assets including her grandmother’s crystal to get the camp running. She can recite a long litany of facts and statistics on the scourge of obesity. “We see 4-year-olds now with cirrhosis of the liver. Twenty-year olds have heart attacks,” she says. “Ten-year-olds have type 2 diabetes. We used to call that adult-onset diabetes. We’ll see 25-year-olds who are blind [because of diabetes].” Lisa Stravinskas of Rockford, Illinois, raves about Jump Start. Her 16-year-old daughter M.E. (short for Marie Elise) was once teased for being overweight. Four summers at the camp did wonders. “She changed her eating habits. She’s integrated exercise into her lifestyle,” says Stravinskas. “It’s affected her self-esteem and personality. She’s more sensitive and caring.” Mother and daughter now share a personal trainer and competed together in a triathlon. Stravinskas donates to the Living Well Foundation “so it can do miracles for other kids.” Digital LION Through the decades clubs have done super service. Learn more at www.lionmagazine.org. • As affluence takes root, New York Lions stage mammoth home show (December 1960 LION). • A Texas club searches for the “country’s most nearly perfect baby” (February 1939). • As the Roaring Twenties wind down, clubs roar ahead with a wide range of interesting projects (January 1930).
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