May’s Remarkable Man - Doug Villella

Doug Villella – May's Remarkable Man
by Lisa Gensheimer, for Her Times, Erie-Times News, May 4, 2014

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Two days before the polar vortex descended on our region, Doug Villella and his wife Holly stashed their cross-country skis in a snow bank and stepped inside Wilderness Lodge for a warm-up. Soon their 11-year-old son Anthony joined them, waving goodbye to his fellow “Wildcats” after their Saturday ski lesson.

“Remember fresh basil and garlic,” Villella tapped into his iPhone as he hurried his family to the car. A friend was coming for dinner, and cioppino, an Italian-American fish stew, was on the menu.

Family comes first for the Erie optometrist, but this family has grown to embrace a wide circle of friends and colleagues, extending all the way to the southern hemisphere. Doug will convince many of them, often over dinner and wine, to support his mission -- creating self-sustaining eye clinics in Latin America that will improve the quality of life for people in extreme poverty who would otherwise go blind.

Vision for the Poor, the Erie-based non-profit Villella established in 1997 with support from donors and the International Eye Foundation, has so far built five eye hospitals in Guatemala, Haiti and Nicaragua that treat more than 100,000 patients annually.

The three clinics in Guatemala, run by a team of skilled Guatemalan surgeons and other health professionals known as Visualiza, treated 53,000 patients and performed 6,000 surgeries last year, accounting for 30 percent of the nation’s eye care.

Last October, Villella road his bicycle 430 miles across Pennsylvania to raise funds for a new eye hospital in the Amazon rainforest of Peru. He’s inspired other adventure seekers to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world, through Climb for Sight, a fundraising program sponsored by Vision for the Poor.

Why contribute to a cause so far from home?

“People in the states, no matter how poor, have access to eye care,” says Villella, who, in addition to his private practice, serves as the optometrist at Community Health Net in Erie. “Every five seconds someone in the world goes blind, and a child goes blind every minute, unnecessarily, because they have no access to eye services. Everyone has the right to sight. Should it really matter where they live?”

Longtime friend Jason Robertson, manager of engineering at Hydro-Pac in Fairview, first met Villella through their Spanish tutor about 15 years ago. But it wasn’t until they spent time kayaking and camping in Canada, sharing the road on long cycling tours, and slicing through trails on cross-country skis that Robertson understood why his friend dedicated his life to restoring sight to the most impoverished, isolated people in Latin America.

“The problems and needs of the developing world are mind-boggling. Most people wouldn’t even attempt to solve them,” says Robertson. “But Doug realized how a low-cost, 10-minute operation can not only restore a person’s sight, it can transform their life, enabling them to get an education, earn a living and support their family.”

When you see a face light up after a sight-restoring surgery, it’s hard to think of the benefits in economic terms. But the World Bank ranks cataract surgery among the most cost-effective of all public health initiatives. Their study found patients are able to generate income at a 1,500 percent return on the actual cost of surgery, in the first year alone.

“Doug Villella, this outgoing, fun, well-read, athletic guy in Erie, Pennsylvania, is responsible for bringing access to eye care to hundreds of thousands of people who previously had none; for curing the blindness of thousands of people each year,” says Robertson. “How many people make that kind of impact during their lifetime?”

Vital Stats

Name: Doug Villella, O.D.
Age: 57
Hometown: Punxsutawney, Pa.
Career: Optometrist, Bayfront Eyecare, and Community Health Net; Executive Director, Vision for the Poor, www.visionforthepoor.org
Interests: Cooking, meditation, yoga, kayaking, cross-country skiing, telemark skiing, cycling and golf
Second language: Spanish
Family: Wife Holly, son Anthony, step-daughter Amanda

Lisa Gensheimer, a regular contributor to Lake Erie Lifestyle, is a multi-media producer and writer based in North East. She and her husband Rich Gensheimer have accompanied Villella to Guatemala, documenting the personal stories of people who have received the gift of sight. She is now writing a book about Vision for the Poor, Visualiza and their quest to eliminate avoidable blindness in all of Latin America.