When I was in my early 40s and my sons were in high school, I began to feel like it was time to give back. When I was a youth, my father was asked by the local parish priest to build a small church in a remote area to serve people who could not make it to the city on Sundays. He would take us there on the weekends, and we would do the clean up work.
When the church was completed, the parish priest gave him a set of steak knives and thanked him for his work building the church. My mother was upset that he did not receive more for the work he had done. He responded, “I didn’t do it for the money, I did it for those people who were unable to attend mass as there was no church.”
I believe this experience is where my desire to help those less fortunate came from. As I looked for a way to give back, I was approached by another colleague who was affiliated with the Central Valley Flying Samaritans. In 1991, I participated in my first clinic in San Felipe, Baja. From that point on, I began to participate with the Flying Samaritans twice annually.
Shortly after my first clinic to Baja, I realized that Stockton could use this same help for the large homeless community. I contacted Councilwoman Sylvia Sun Minnick and she connected me with David Brewer, the CEO of St. Mary’s Dining Hall and Bill Brown of the Gospel Center Rescue Mission. I contacted both of these gentlemen and offered to do vision examinations and provide eyeglasses to their clientele.
I began to see patients monthly at each location, working in a hallway at St. Mary’s and a prayer room at the Gospel Center. At first, it was cumbersome to haul all of my equipment and recycled glasses to each location and do setup and teardown after each clinic. In 1999, St. Mary’s built a medical complex where we were able to carve out an examination room and optical dispensary. From then on, all patients from the Gospel Center and other local outreach centers were funneled to the medical complex at St. Mary’s. I continue to see patients twice monthly, along with two other doctors.
In 1994 I approached Mark Phelps, the CEO of the Children’s Home of Stockton. At that time, they were sending their children to a local ophthalmologist and paying for examinations and glasses. I offered to perform onsite examinations and provide glasses free of charge. I continued my involvement there until 1996, when my partner Richard Vanover took over for me. He continues to work at the Children’s Home every month.
In 2000 I joined Lions in Sight of California and Nevada, and volunteer an average of four times per year with the group. I have traveled extensively throughout Mexico, Central America and South America, and I have participated in clinics in Serbia, Armenia, India and Sri Lanka. In 2010, I took over as Clinical Director for the group and serve on the Board of Directors. As of 2016, I am also a member of the Mother Lode Chapter of the Flying Samaritans and participated in my first clinic with that group.
A typical clinic runs for two days or one week. We arrive the day before and set up the clinic site, and a clinic day involves a group of four doctors and eight technicians performing on average 500 exams per day. After a patient history assessment, each patient is seen by one of the doctors who determines their prescription and performs an eye health examination.
Referrals for glaucoma, cataracts, and other medical problems are referred to a local ophthalmologist if one is available. Many patients must be referred to distant cities for treatment. During week-long clinics, we work four days and typically see 4000 patients. On two-day clinics, we usually see between 800 and 1000 patients. Clinic days are long but the smiles we see and the emotional situations that come up for patients who have never been able to see or those who haven’t been able to read for years and are suddenly able to see again make it worthwhile.
Here in the U.S., we take our ability to see clearly and comfortably for granted. I have met thousands of elderly patients who assume that growing older means losing their vision. I have seen hundreds of young people who were extremely nearsighted suddenly able to see across the street again—many of these patients have broken into tears, and so have we.
To date, I have participated in 113 clinics in 20 countries and have examined approximately 35,000 patients in the process. When people ask me why I give back, my answer is these emotional situations where we are able to bring the gift of sight to so many people. My work internationally and locally with these groups has been very rewarding, and makes me appreciate what we have here in the USA.
In 2013, my wife Debbie and I started Summerfest. This is an annual fundraiser to aid the three nonprofit organizations mentioned above (St. Mary’s Homeless Shelter Medical Clinic, Lions In Sight and The Central Valley Flying Samaritans). To date $50,000 has been donated to these groups as a result of this fundraising event.