The Therapy of Helping Others: Adventures in El Salvador
JULY 10, 2012
This article first appeared in the July 2012 PXE International eNewsletter
When I was nine years old, I was diagnosed with this thing called pseudoxanthoma elasticum [PXE]. None of the doctors knew of it, as it seems they do today. I came to PXE International around 1997 when Sharon and Pat Terry operated it out of their basement and kitchen. I was about 50 when I had my first macular bleed with another following six months later. It was then that my vision really started to become impaired.
Since then I’ve been on a mission to have the best and fullest life I can, to keep adjusting and be positive at all times. Even when I feel limited by this disease, I always have a plan B to remind myself how full my life can be. It’s too dark to drive? So I clean the basement. Or I organize all the donations for the El Salvador Eye Campaign which fill my garage. There’s always something that can be done.
Let me back up and tell you how I became involved with my work in El Salvador.
ASAPROSAR is a Spanish acronym for: The Association of Rural Health Clinics of El Salvador. They are an organization dedicated to helping the neediest of families in El Salvador improve their quality of life. In 1997 after joining my church, I heard about 12 people that were doing community work with ASAPROSAR in Sant’Ana, El Salvador. I didn’t even know exactly where that was, but I had always wanted to be more deeply involved with volunteer work. When I spoke to the people that had worked with ASAPROSAR, I knew this was my chance.
The following year I went to El Salvador with a small group of people from my church. Having no idea really what I was to do, I took five pounds of beads and yards and yards of ribbon. When I arrived, I found out that I would spend most of my time on the ground, working with kids who lived on the street, making beaded things. They called me the ‘bead woman’ and still do. I taught arts and crafts to the moms and the older children so that they might have something that they could make and sell in the market. One of these kids is now in art school making beautiful jewelry!
I went back to Sant’Ana with my church group every year after that. One August however, I was unable to go, but I learned that there was another possibility for a five-day trip in January. This trip was an Eye Campaign that started in my church during the war in El Salvador. It has become so large that it is now operated under the ‘Friends of ASAPROSAR’ umbrella. It began with only four people but has become a team of at least 60 doctors, nurses, technicians, optometrists, computer experts, and lots of regular folks like me. Some of the volunteers are trained on the spot to fit eyeglasses, and they are busy all day long. On that January trip alone, we saw 2200 patients, fitted 1700 pairs of eyeglasses, and completed 149 eye surgeries. We accomplished all of this in five days, working from 7 AM until we were done for the day. My most important job is to give toys to the kids who stand in line for hours and hours waiting for their eye exams. I also take them to the lending library and entertain them with coloring pages and art projects so that those performing the eye exams can do their job without being interrupted. All of this I do without speaking Spanish; I just keep smiling.
Even after those five days were over, I continued my work with the Eye Campaign. We maintain a bank of 10,000 pairs of eyeglasses. During the year as we get donations, they all have to be washed, screened for scratches and then read. I wash A LOT of eyeglasses.
Now, I generally travel to El Salvador twice a year in both January and August. Each trip is different, but each trip is important to those with whom we visit. I have come to know that even though we might just go to a community to watch a women’s meeting or attend a service, they will tell generations that the North Americans came to their village on that day. Knowing that simple fact keeps me going back.
Most importantly I’ve learned that no matter what, we can all do something to help an important cause. When people work together, even greater things can be accomplished. There is a blind man who teaches a class at the Eye Campaign. He explains to the patients what will happen during the examination and eyeglass fittings. To do his job, he has to take two buses. People on the corner where the bus stops help him get on the right bus. Again, we can all do something.
Participating in the Eye Campaign is an awesome experience. January 2013 will be my 15th trip. The team members all know of my vision problems and are very supportive and helpful. They are terrific people.
In addition to the El Salvador effort, I volunteer for my town’s Council on Elder Affairs. Initially we provided lunches for the seniors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. However, we worried that many of the participants would be without companionship between Thursday and Tuesday, so we expanded the program. On Monday mornings, four of us prepare breakfast and coffee for the seniors. It was an instant hit and they have a great time with us on Monday mornings.
I am also in the choir at my church, but as my vision began to worsen, it became more and more difficult for me to participate. My buddies refused to let me quit just because I could no longer drive at night or see the music on the page. One friend picks me up and takes me home EVERY Thursday night. Another types my words in 36-point font so that I can still sing in the choir! I never asked them to do any of this; they just did it. Imagine. It fills my heart with joy and gratitude.
As my vision dims, I consider myself ‘in training’ for when it dims a little more. I am so blessed to have the support of my team of doctors, my family, friends and my faith community, who are all more than willing to listen, learn, and help.
In the end, dear PXEers, each of us can do something for someone else – write a note, make a phone call, drop those old glasses in the Lions Club bin – many things.
I hope that you enjoyed my story of my El Salvador journey and if you want to learn more, please visit ASAPROSAR.org.
Have a blessed life,
Linda Maria Falconiero