The Eye Train. (Screen shot from video by Rick Castiglione)

Maple Ridge optometry student to see the joys of giving

Maryam Askarpoor will be traveling to the Philippines to volunteer on The Eye Train

A rusty old rail car destined to become scrap metal in the Philippines, now an eye-care clinic serving the impoverished people of the nation’s capital, is where a Maple Ridge resident will find herself in May.

Maryam Askarpoor is studying to become an eye doctor in the optometry program at the University of Waterloo. She is also an executive member of VOSH, an organization that provides free eye care to people all over the world, regardless of their means to pay for it. That includes free eye exams, prescription glasses, antibiotics and referrals to surgeries like cataracts.

The Eye Train from Rick Castiglione on Vimeo.

Askarpoor will be helping out the Eye Train, a collaborative effort of a Philippine businesswoman and two optometrists from Canada.

Andronica Roma was battling cancer when she prayed that, if she survived, she would help a lot of people, even though she didn’t know how at the time.

Initially, she searched for a mobile van to take an optometrist into the slums to do exams and provide free glasses to people in need.

When a friend of hers, a manager with the Philippines National Railway, heard what she was planning, he offered her the old rail car. Then members of the railway union volunteered to push it, along with another car onto a side track at a Manila station and to help with the renovations.

Dr. Pasqualino Marcantonio, from Moncton, N.B., became involved and volunteered to find used equipment for the clinic. But the rail car was in such disrepair that he never thought the clinic would become a reality.

The team had to install lights, air conditioning, running water and make the outside of the car look presentable.

Alberta optometrist Allan Jones was also recruited to help. Jones had already been providing humanitarian eye care to people living in the developing world through a charity called Canadian Vision Care.

On his missions, he brings crates of donated eyeglasses with him that are collected, cleaned and sorted by Lions Clubs across Canada.

Now the Eye Train charity, called SPECS Foundation Inc., or Special Philippine Eye Care Solutions, sees between 200 to 300 patients a day.

The students with VOSH, Waterloo will be involved in seven to 10 clinic days, when they will be diagnosing and treating certain eye diseases, handing out glasses and referring those who need surgery to in-country surgeons.

They expect to help between 1,500 to 2,500 patients while they are there.

“Where we live, it is really easy to get access to eye care. In those countries, people unfortunately go permanently blind due to diseases that are easily preventable,” said Askarpoor.

According to VOSH International, more than 2.5 billion people in the world require glasses due to a refractive error and, of those, 1.1 billion – or one in seven people – lack access to clinical care and glasses.

Askarpoor said the goal of the mission is sustainability.

“We are staying as far away from ‘voluntourism’ as possible and we are doing that by collaborating with in-country host doctors and surgeons to allow them to build a sustainable model to continue caring for themselves,” said Askarpoor.

The team has set up a GoFundMe page to raise $4,000 that will go directly to patient care.

Also, personalized postcards from patients will be sent to donors who give $15 or more.

So far the group has raised $3,948.

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Dr. Pasqualino Marcantonio, from Moncton, New Brunswick, aboard The Eye Train before renovations took place. (Screen shot from video by Rick Castiglione)

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