By Alex P. Vidal
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — A multi-awarded Filipino-Canadian doctor known for providing “the gift of vision to those living in the third world,” met B.C. Premier Christy Clark during the thanksgiving luncheon tendered for the top leader of the B.C. Liberals on February 3 at the Josephine’s Restaurant on Main Street.
Dr. Marina Roma-March first had a brief conversation with Clark’s chief of staff Pamela Martin before the ceremonies started where Clark was awarded with a plaque of appreciation for donating $25,000 to the International Red Cross for typhoon victims in the Philippines.
Roma-March was among those who congratulated Clark for her gesture and for honoring the invitation from leaders of the Filipino-Canadian Community to grace the occasion which was a first meeting between a Canadian Premier and leaders of the community.
Roma-March has been recognized by various organizations for her vision to fix the problem of hundreds of thousands of people around the world who suffer from impaired vision and cannot afford basic essentials such as eyeglasses–which is often the situation in many Third World countries.
Her crusade began 18 years ago, when she was a second-year optometry student at the University of British Columbia.
“At the time,” Kevin Newman wrote in Global National’s Everyday Hero, “she realized that a countless number Canadians purchase new prescription eyeglasses every year…and promptly dispose of their old frames. For some, it’s a matter of increasing the prescription. For others, it’s a matter of getting the latest styles in spectacle fashion.
“But for those less fortunate, having the ability to see–clearly–is the gift of a lifetime.
“So Roma-March and a handful of friends drove from Vancouver, B.C., to Baja, Mexico with a car-full of used eyeglasses they had collected, with the goal of distributing them to those in need.
“When she arrived, she quickly found that the need was much more than what she expected. In fact, as she began researching the issue, Roma-March came across countless individuals in nearly a dozen Third World countries who were in desperate need of corrective lenses.
“It was then that Roma-March decided to use her influence in the optometry field — and her abilities as a Canadian — to address the situation: With just $100, she founded the Third World Eye Care Society (TWECS).
“‘As an immigrant, I feel very blessed to be living in Canada where there are so many opportunities,’ said Roma-March. ‘It’s the thought that hundreds of millions of people don’t have the same great fortune, and they live in repressed societies where finding food for the day is in itself an accomplishment.’
‘The B.C.-based organization began knocking on doors and asking for donations of used eyeglasses, and within its first six months, the group had accumulated thousands of pairs.
‘TWECS members, all volunteers, then spent hours in a warehouse sorting, measuring, cleaning, labeling and packaging the eyeglasses. Cash donations they collected were used to cover some of the costs of sterilizing the frames and lenses.
“‘If you think about it, the patients that we see in the Third World and the glasses that we give them may be the last pair of their life,’ said Roma-March. ‘We want to give them a decent pair and something that’s going to last.’
But the work didn’t stop there.
“The volunteers then paid out of their own pockets for travel and expenses to Third World countries, establishing mobile eyeglass clinics in regions where corrective lenses would typically cost over a month’s wages and were simply not affordable.
“The majority of those who arrive at the clinics have needed eyeglasses their entire lives, but are only receiving their first pair through TWECS, and the sudden clarity in vision is life-changing.
“‘That’s the sad thing,’ says Roma-March. ‘If they can’t see, they go to school where they are a burden to the school system, because someone has to read for them and someone has to write for them.’
“‘So they just stay at home and they’re basically crippled,’ she adds.
“So far, TWECS has held clinics in Peru, Bolivia, Cambodia, Kenya and the Philippines, where during a typical two-week trip, their mobile clinics help up to 3,000 people with their vision through eye exams, eyeglass fittings, and where the location and facilities permit, cataract surgeries.
“‘We’ve given away over 35,000,’ said Roma-March. ‘But in the warehouse we have about 250,000.’
“She says one of the most fulfilling experiences is ‘when you see a mother who receives a pair of eyeglasses for the first time, and also for the first time, sees her boy’s face — it’s incredible.’
‘Roma-March has now recruited over 300 Canadians over the past decade to help with her mission. An upcoming trip to Zanzibar has been planned for Fall 2006; after that, a TWECS team will head to a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut.
‘But wherever Roma-March and her volunteers go, and whoever they touch, young and old, the results are sure to be the same.
“‘I guess that is what we all live for,’ she says. ‘To hope that when we do leave this world; that when we look back we can say that yes, we made a difference, whether that be through a pair of eyeglasses or an organ donation — we made a difference.'”