Our group of six Denver Lions volunteers who had planned and would carry out the 2018 Eyesight Project arrived in Mongolia at midnight after a full day of travel.
Despite the challenges of getting six suitcases of recycled eyeglasses through customs, and the exhaustion from the long trip, the welcome and assistance from the waiting Nomadic Expeditions driver and guide made the mood joyous and full of anticipation upon our arrival.
This was our second eyesight mission to Mongolia, and we were eager to build on the experiences lived, relationships developed, and lessons learned during the first project in 2017.
But this project–the gratifying work of testing the eyes of hundreds of people, most of whom previously had little opportunity or means to obtain needed eyeglasses–would not have been possible without the collaboration and coordination of multiple amazing partners and networks and we would like to make special mention of those who helped so greatly.
The Denver Lions coordinated the project with the Denver Sister Cities Mongolia Committee. Ulaanbaatar, for those who don’t know, is a Sister City of Denver, with many exchanges and visits taking place each year.
Jim Wagenlander, Denver Sister Cities chair and Honorary Consul of Mongolia, was in Mongolia at the same time as the Denver Lions volunteers, and the two programs were coordinated and facilitated by Nomadic Expeditions.
In addition to the role Nomadic Expeditions would typically play in crafting experiences for travelers–creating day-to-day itineraries, providing guides, drivers, and the like–the organization actively identified sites and patients for the project, particularly in the South Gobi.
One of their guides, Sugarmaa Enebish, was a valuable volunteer on the project, helping with arrangements on site, facilitating communication between the Mongolian and English speaking participants, and working with patients directly to find the best glasses for them after they had been tested.
The Lions organization in Mongolia, through the leadership of Lion Oyun Tuul, played a key role in communicating with local authorities to ensure the safe handing of the glasses upon our arrival and in making the arrangements at the three sites in the Bayanzurkh Ger District of the capital Ulaanbaatar where the project took place. She and the local Lions were incredible hosts and volunteers themselves, helping to guarantee the success of the UB portion of the program. They will also provide follow-up and do additional eyesight work with the glasses that were left behind.
Volunteers from the Zorig Foundation’s Youth Leadership Program, who had the month before participated in the Sister Cities exchange program between Mongolia and Denver, and their chaperone from that foundation, also proved indispensable during our work in UB.
Soyombo Narantsatsralt, a long-time collaborator and volunteer crucial in the 2017 project was again a key player in 2018. He not only facilitated the planning and logistics in the Middle Gobi, but also made arrangements for Dr. Batjargal Dorigotov– whose contributions were so important to the project–to work with us in the Gobi. Dr. Dorigotov lent true professionalism to our work and volunteered to do surgeries for area children identified as needing help during our trip. In a part of the world where volunteerism is an unusual concept, this Mongolian doctor is a true model of serving others.
A member of the Sister Cities delegation, Dr. Sue Benes, a dedicated neuro-ophthalmologist was another special partner to the project. She went well beyond identifying which glasses were needed and made sure the patients understood their eyesight issues, often including advice on nutrition and other matters.
Planning and preparation for the project took place in Denver as the team solidified procedures and protocols, coordinated with Mongolian partners, and decided on the range of prescriptions and types of glasses that should be included in the 3,000 that were obtained from the Colorado Lions.
Once on site, there was an intense period of set up as volunteers arranged the stations for the multiple phases of the process: registration of the typically hundreds of people standing in line, initial exams with the eye charts and the equipment we brought with us, the visits with the doctor, and, then, to the area where the tests results led to the search for just the right glasses among the vast array. It was no wonder so many volunteers were needed from Mongolia in addition to the six travelers representing Denver Lions.
We were able to detect and recommend treatment for eye-related issues like glaucoma, pterygium, cataracts, and dry eyes caused by Vitamin A deficiency. We brought eyedrops donated by Alcon, which we distributed in UB and Middle Gobi (we ran out in South Gobi). We saw 820 people in total and distributed some 630 pairs of eyeglasses and readers and 500 pairs of sunglasses. And we agreed to make arrangements for several referrals – four eye surgeries and seven pairs of eyeglasses that would need to be custom-made because of the complexity of the prescriptions. The local Lions and doctors will make these arrangements, Dr. Batjargal will perform the surgeries, and Denver Lions will provide funds for associated costs and custom glasses.
These descriptions of the partnerships, process, and outcomes cannot capture the smiles, the tears, the surprise, and the awe that we witnessed as people, many of whom were older and had never had their eyes tested, or not for many years, put on glasses and expressed that their lives had been forever transformed.
Specific stories could fill many pages. People who could no longer see to read, giving a thumbs up as they looked at a printed page with their new glasses. A driver who longed for one pair of glasses that he could use for distance and close up work, who, after a lot of time had been spent finding the right multi-vision pair for him, looked so surprised and exclaimed, “YANZIIN!” and then, “How did this happen?” Consistent with his surprise, we said with a smile, through the interpreter, “magic”. The little 9 year old boy who only had one working eye because of an accident and who liked to play basketball and whose father works with metal can see better with his new glasses. Dr. Benes was worried about protecting the good eye, so Wagner Asia quickly agreed to provide him a pair of safety glasses and arrangements were made through the Nomadic Expeditions volunteers to get those to him.
Over the years there had been discussions with Jalsa Urubshurow, founder of Nomadic Expeditions, about ways to partner in providing needed services for people in Mongolia, particularly in the South Gobi. This eyesight project demonstrated not only the power of partnership, but also the personal and group gratification that results when imagination, creativity, collaboration, and hard work combine with a dedication to service through volunteerism.
The International Lions motto is: We Serve.
We hope to have done just that and could not have done so without the aforementioned contributions.