Taking Eye Care To An Isle's Poor

Posted: February 18, 1986

Mike Gordon smiled as he pointed to the packing cases arrayed like a minor mountain range, each case plastered with a large sticker that read SOSH.

"What we have here," he said, "may be the best-traveled freight you've ever seen. It's been to Haiti and it was brought back unopened, and now it's going to Dominica."

At this point it seems advisable to point out that SOSH stands for ''Student Optometric Service to Haiti," that it is a project conducted annually by seniors at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, and that SOSH '86 is going to be different.

Every late-winter since 1969, a SOSH team has gone to Haiti for a fortnight and provided eye service free of charge to thousands of people living in and around the city of Cap Haitien - people who otherwise might never receive such treatment in the grindingly poor island nation in the Caribbean.

But SOSH won't be going there this year.

Because of the current volatility of the situation in Haiti in the wake of the departure of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, the college was advised not to send a team.

"It was a disappointment," Gordon, 26, chairman of the project, said yesterday as he and his SOSH teammates held a meeting in Fitch Hall, 1200 West Godfrey Ave., on the campus.

"But we were lucky in that we already had been talking to the authorities in Dominica about going there at some future time, and when Haiti went off- limits, we found we could go to Dominica now," he said.

Thus on Friday, the 25 members of the SOSH '86 team will fly from Philadelphia International Airport to San Juan, Puerto Rico, then proceed via a small local airline to Roseau, capital of the island Commonwealth of Dominica. From then until March 10, SOSH will be providing eye care to the people of Dominica.

If you never have heard of Dominica - not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti - you doubtless have a lot of company. The most northerly of the Windward Islands, it is located in the eastern Caribbean in the vicinity of Grenada. With 290 square miles, it is about one-fourth the size of Rhode Island, and its total population is about 74,000 - about 10,000 fewer than that of Upper Darby Township.

It is a country that until recently had no roads to speak of. More than half its people have no indoor toilets, and the majority have neither electricity nor telephones. It is one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean, but it has been making strides under a dynamo of a woman named Eugenia Charles, recently re-elected to a second five-year term as prime minister.

It was about a year ago that Charles and Deputy Prime Minister Franklin Baron talked with the Pennsylvania College of Optometry about the possibility of setting up a sort of "satellite" program of SOSH in conjunction with the work in Haiti. The college put the idea on the drawing board for SOSH '87.

"That was a break, as it turned out," Gordon said. "Another break is that the people in Dominica speak English. In Haiti, we had to get along with our high-school French."

Gordon, from West Chester, and Mark Bere, of Carteret, N.J., were in Haiti late last month, preparing for the arrival of the full team, when the unrest concerning Duvalier began to boil over. By what Gordon calls "sheer good luck," the two were able to get themselves and all of their equipment out of the country.,

The equipment includes about 8,000 pairs of spectacles, donated largely through various Lions Clubs, many of which will be dispensed following visual- acuity tests administered by members of the team; in Haiti last year, nearly 9,000 persons were screened and more than 4,000 pair of spectacles were issued.

Also there are "slit-lamps" for detailed examination of the eye, equipment for refraction, and medicines for treatment of various eye ailments.

The project is budgeted at $49,000, and the process of choosing the participants is highly selective. A student committee makes the final decision.

"It not only is a student-run program," Gordon said, "but those students have been chosen by other students."

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