Grant Township Lions in northeastern Illinois like to say that they see beyond borders. They do, in fact, see all the way to the African bush country of Swaziland, nearly 9,000 miles away, where they’re helping thousands of people clearly see the faces of loved ones, see well enough to plant their crops and live healthier, safer lives. Lions support The Luke Commission (www.lukecommission.org), a team of Americans and Swazis who hold mobile medical clinics in the bush. A non-profit organization, it’s headed by Grant Township Lions Dr. Harry and Echo VanderWal, who live in Swaziland about nine months a year with their children. Lions Don and Darlene Borgwardt and Ken and Diane Klein serve as team coordinators in Illinois while the VanderWals and their four children volunteer in Swaziland. Hundreds of Illinois Lions collect and donate eyeglasses through the Lions of Illinois Foundation. Many clubs help support the work in Swaziland by donating additional needed items, such as cloth diapers, or funds to keep the missions going. A tiny country in southern Africa, Swaziland has the highest HIV-AIDS rate in the world. The VanderWals and their team drive two trailers packed with medications and eyeglasses to the most remote reaches of Swaziland, setting up their mobile missions at bush schools, villages or orphanages. Half of the population of Swaziland is under 15 years of age and half of those children are orphans, says Don Borgwardt. Echo VanderWal emphasizes, “It’s a war zone here. The effects of HIV and full-blown AIDS are wiping out an entire generation between 20 and 35. Often children are left to be cared for by a grandmother or another relative who already has several children.” The VanderWals rise before the sun each day to prepare for the mobile clinics, not an easy job in a country where roads are unpaved, rocky and pitted with holes. Broken axels and flat tires are common. They stay with the villagers until the job is done, regardless of how late or how dark it becomes. Eyeglasses, matched on a computer to a patientfs vision needs, are selected from a large selection of prescription glasses and transported daily in trailers. Reading glasses are distributed to anyone who needs them. Borgwardt points out, People are being reached who haven't seen well for years. We've increased the Luke Commission eyeglass inventory from 3,500 to 25,000 and supplied them with many other needed items. Our goal for next year is to supply them with an inventory of 50,000 glasses. Grant Township Lions raised $10,000 to purchase an auto refractor for the Luke Commission so one would no longer have to be rented. Borgwardt credits Lions working together in District 1-F for making the donation possible. They are now trying to raise $30,000 to buy new vehicles since the combination of carrying heavy loads along with terrible road conditions have taken a toll on the vehicles driven by volunteers. The VanderWals treat Swazis who may have never seen a physician or been able to afford the simplest of medicines, let alone antibiotics or medications to fight the HIV virus, Borgwardt says. They offer free testing and counseling for those who may already have the virus. The couple also line up surgeries for patients with urgent medical care needs and work with a hospital in the city of Manzini to provide follow-up care. Manzini Lions now twin with the Grant Township club to maximize humanitarian assistance. Last year, 21,140 patients were treated in the bush and a total of 157,000 packets of free medications were distributed. Additionally, 9,529 patients were fitted with eyeglasses. "People walk for miles and then spend the day standing in line,h says Borgwardt. "They are so thrilled that they are being treated that there is no pushing and shoving. They just patiently wait their turn. Sometimes a clinic is no more than the shade of a tree." Leaving with his new pair of glasses, a young man laughs happily. "I can see a bee pass by now!" A little girl shouts, "Now I can see my teacher and the board!" An elderly woman smiles as she says, "I haven't been able to sew for the last 10 years. Now I can thread a needle." Small miracles, maybe, but to some, giant steps toward happier, healthier lives.
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