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SeeingEyeToEye StoryImg"I feel really proud of the fact that we’ve done what we’ve done. Thousands and thousands of people I’ll never meet are going to get help.” - Bob Martin
Hundreds of Mexicans are now seeing more clearly, thanks to a barn full of eyeglasses and the vision of one enterprising Marylander. Bob Martin of Myersville has added a new vision clinic in Merida, Yucatan, to his list of philanthropic efforts, creating a place where locals can go and get free prescription eyeglasses.
“We’re just about precisely re-prescribing glasses and putting them on people’s faces,” says Martin, a longtime Marylander whose career has included owning a bike shop, working in newspapers, and being a house husband.
His first interest in the Yucatan came as an Indiana Jones-style fantasy. After years of fascination with pyramids and archeology, he and a friend were able to head to Mexico in 1985 to go hiking, visit ruins, and do “all sorts of silly stuff as far as most people are concerned.” In time, it was not only the buildings, but also the local population, that kept bringing him back.
“We had fallen in love with the people,” he says.
Meanwhile, as executive director of the Tree-Land Foundation, a nonprofit he co-founded in 1994, Martin was making his mark locally by creating a forest-conversation area to be used as a free campground by scouts. He later extended the reach of the foundation to his newfound friends in Yucatan by starting the ONE AMERICA program in 1998.
Soon, Martin was bringing groups of American kids and adults to live amongst the Mayans, spreading the word that the descendents of that ancient civilization remain proud, intelligent, and hospitable despite the prevalent poverty.
“You can’t preach that to someone,” he says. Rather, it has to come from what he calls an “ah-ha experience.”
A good day’s wage there is less than five dollars, he explains, so there is a real need for help. However, it can be difficult to choose how to distribute financial aid. Hence, he was on the lookout for a more novel way to give the local population a hand.
Martin says that “it was just totally serendipity” that he happened to come across 15,000 pairs of old glasses that had been sitting around for years in a barn near Buckeystown in Frederick County.
At around the same time, he visited a clinic in Mexico City created by Rotary International of Mexico and the Devlyn Optical Group, a private company. There he found special technology being employed to sort used eyeglasses by prescription and then match them with new owners in a way that is exceptionally quick and accurate. He was handed a pair that fit his own eyes in just three minutes, he recalls. No small feat, considering he wears bifocals.
“I had all these eyeglasses,” he says, and this clinic had all that technology. And not far away, there were the Mayans “who really need this kind of help.”
Before a Yucatan vision clinic could be opened, however, Martin went through four-and-a-half years of hard work and red tape. “We had lots of adventures along the way,” he says, from filling out form after form to having to describe all the donated glasses in weight (that would be five-and-a-quarter tons).
But on February 1, 2007, the clinic was open for business, with its costs paid by grants given to Tree-Land, and its daily operations carried out by local Mayans. Just weeks after its opening, “Hundreds of people have already gotten their sight back because of this clinic,” says Martin.
The 80,000 pairs of glasses that the clinic received in the first few months came from the original barn full of donations, as well as from Maryland Lions Clubs, and were sorted by special-needs children in Frederick County. More local glasses will continue to be sent to Yucatan in the months and years ahead.