Ken and Laurie Baalson, of Emily, have embarked on 15 mission trips since 1995 to provide eye care to those in need.
“Some people, you can give them a new life,” Ken said of his work on the trips. He’s a member of the Emily-Outing Lions Club and both he and Laurie are members of Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH). Ken is an optician at Pequot Eye Center and Crosslake Eye Center.
On each of their 15 trips, Ken and Laurie took donated pairs of eyeglasses collected by the Lions and cleaned them, sorted them, and found them new owners in countries like Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, Argentina and, most recently, Jamaica.
The two spent a week there in March. Three days of the trip consisted of 11-hour (or more) days volunteering to fit glasses to those who needed them.
They provided those in need with more than 2,000 pairs of glasses and more than 800 pairs of non-prescription sunglasses.
The communities Ken and Laurie visited were places where eye care was either unavailable or too expensive.
“There’s no way they could think about going down and buying a pair of glasses,” he said, noting some people in the areas they visited live on only a few hundred dollars a year.
Ken has a long history in the business of eyesight. After time in the Army, he got a job working as a helicopter technician. When he was laid off, he made the switch to working on hard contact lenses. One thing led to another.
“If it’s with optical, I’ve pretty well done it,” he said.
He said on their recent trip to Jamaica, a typical day for him and Laurie included working in the third floor of a clinic. A line of patients ran all the way down the stairs, out the door and around the block, he said.
After patients visited with an eye doctor, they brought their prescription to Laurie, who pulled a few pairs of glasses of the same strength for the patient to try on. After the best pair was picked, Ken fitted the glasses to the patient’s face.
On their Jamaica trip alone, the group gave away more than 2,000 pairs of glasses and more than 800 pairs of non-prescription sunglasses. Around 1,180 exams were administered, and Laurie and Ken were a part of a team of 21 people. The service was free to anyone who needed it.
Ken said that on many of the trips, the group would take four-wheel-drive vehicles to spend a day in a remote village. One woman who visited had several “stair-step” children. She was in her 30s, Ken said, and had never had a pair of glasses. Her prescription was very strong at -15.
To get a sense of this prescription strength, Ken said it would be similar to putting on a pair of reading glasses at a drug store, then multiplying that 15 times.
Ken watched as the woman put on glasses for the first time, and realized it was perhaps the first time she had clearly seen her children’s faces.
Ken also tells the story of a 13- year-old girl who had a -12 prescription. He said people had assumed she was unintelligent, but really she had just been unable to see.
“She put them on, and she says, ‘Maybe I could go to school now.’”
Ken said his favorite part of the trips is seeing the looks on people’s faces when they can see again.
“If you’ve got old glasses laying around, you can take and put those on somebody and totally give them a new life,” Ken said.
Area Lions clubs collect glasses in marked cardboard boxes, which Ken said are at nearly all eye centers and most banks. He said there’s a great need not only for used glasses of any kind, including reading glasses, but also non-prescription sunglasses and kids glasses.
He and Laurie have seen first-hand the difference they can make to those in need.