My Experience Helping People See in South Africa

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As a third-generation Optometrist, giving back to those in need is an important component of what I do. Recently, I traveled to a township outside of Johannesburg, South Africa called Soweto. As you may know, this is Nelson Mandela’s homestead and the center stage of the Apartheid events which segregated the country for years. I had never been there, and had preconceived notions, but once there those notions quickly dissolved as I saw the beauty of the country and its people through their eyes. 

I joined VSP Vision Care and Nike Vision in a charity outreach trip to provide vital vision services to the underprivileged community at the Nike Football Training Centre (NFTC). This is a sports facility that combines football, education and resources to empower 20,000 children, providing  them the confidence to conquer the hardships they face. Right away I noticed the high level of respect and appreciation the Centre had in the community because it was one of the few buildings that wasn’t surrounded by barbed wire or electric fencing and didn’t have a single mark of graffiti.

Let’s back up for a second, so you can gain a better perspective of the need. We visited a shanty town called Kliptown – a “squatter settlement” with more than 40,000 residents of which 45 percent have HIV/AIDS. It’s important to note that approximately 75 percent of all AIDS patients develop some type of eye problem, such as eye infections, that may result in visual impairments and even blindness. Furthermore, 65 percent of the people in this town are unemployed.  Their houses were made of mostly scraps of metal with no electricity or running water outside of a few water pumps placed around the area, and groups of families shared a few outhouses cleaned just a couple times a month.

I worked alongside South African optometrists to give local children free eye exams and glasses. Some received care for the first time in their lives. Nike Vision supplied the frames and lens fabrication to the delight of the kids. Over three days we provided close to 175 eye exams and gave glasses to 40 patients.  Of those, at least 20 received life-changing prescriptions. The biggest impact on me came from a young girl who had vision so poor anything past an arm’s length was blurred and she thought this was normal.

Giving back to those in need is always fulfilling, but this experience reminded me that once in a while we need to step outside of our comfort zones and see the world from another perspective to get a fresh perspective of our own. In the midst of poverty there was an abundance of hope, encouragement and goodwill with a warm, vibrant community at the core.

See a snapshot of our time in South Africa by watching this video:

This is a guest blog written by Dr. Mathew Alpert, O.D. who owns and practices at Alpert Vision Care in Woodland Hills, CA.

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