FAITH Magazine's 10th Anniversary Season
FAITH Magazine, March/April 2014
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Many readers will remember the interview we did with Dr. Douglas Villella in the July/August edition of 2009. As a young optometrist, he began making mission trips to Central America, providing eye care in temporary clinics. Over time, he embraced a deeper calling and started setting up permanent clinics staffed by doctors from the area.
When we did the story, Villella had established the first eye clinic in Guatemala, and was preparing to use it as a model for additional clinics in a number of other countries.
“We no longer do the mission trips,” Villella said in a phone interview squeezed into his schedule as he was on his way out of town. “Our full energies are devoted to development work, so we can build hospitals for qualified, local eye doctors.”
Today, he has established a nonprofit organization, Vision for the Poor, which has constructed three state-of-the-art eye hospitals in Guatemala. They have clinics in Haiti, an eye hospital in Nicaragua, and are building hospitals in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Thiapas, Mexico. Also under construction is the first eye hospital in the Amazon, situated in Iquitos, Peru.
Vision for the Poor has it down to a science: The organization can build an eye hospital for $450,000. Within a year, it can treat 25,000 patients, becoming sustainable. Then Vision for the Poor can move on to the next project.
For those who look at worldwide problems and only see impossible obstacles, the undertaking sounds extraordinary, especially given that Villella is still a partner in a practice in Erie. But over time, Villella has learned to leverage everything his organization does through partnerships.
“We are not out there on our own,” he says. “Our most significant partners are the International Eye Foundation and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. They are major players in public eye health in the world and are able to help us identify exactly where the greatest need is.”
The partnerships also connect Vision for the Poor with eye doctors, both government-affiliated and in private practice, who are committed to the World Health Organization’s global goal of reducing avoidable blindness. In Guatemala, what started with two optometrists and two nurses, has grown to a staff of 96, including six doctors. They see 60,000 patients a year with the help of outreach staff traveling to villages for screenings and facilitating more in-depth care as necessary.
Another approach that works well for Vision for the Poor is to partner with established eye clinics, paying to create an operating suite designated to help the poor. Doctors who traditionally only have served the wealthy can then devote some of their time to those who would otherwise not be able to afford their services.
But back to the question of how Villella manages to do what he does:
“It starts with discernment,” he says. “For me, that includes the support of my wife and family and certainly prayer.” He says he tried several different kinds of volunteer work earlier in his life, but it always was something he felt he had to do, not something he wanted to do. Even he was surprised by how much he wanted to commit to this effort.
“It just feels right,” Villella says. “It’s through no gift of my own, I assure you. It’s totally the flow of grace. In fact, people who knew me years ago are surprised when they learn what I’m doing. ‘Really, he’s doing that? He was not good with stress!’” It’s been a process, but along with the call came the skills necessary to accomplish his work.
Those inspired to support Vision for the Poor can find information at www.VisionForThePoor.org. The truly adventurous will enjoy its annual Climb for Sight, a trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise funds that keep eye care free for children at Vision for the Poor’s clinics and hospitals.
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