Visionary Volunteer

Glasses for Guatemala: An Einstein Student's Vision Helps Others to See

During his junior year at Boston College (BC), in 2012, Garred Greenberg—now a second-year medical student at Einstein—pondered his future. Should he pursue a business career or opt for medicine?

Garred uses a special tool he created, with lenses for -1, -1.25 and -1.5 corrections, to test peoples’ vision viewing an eye chart
Garred uses a special tool he created, with lenses for -1, -1.25 and -1.5 corrections, to test peoples’ vision viewing an eye chart
As it happened, Garred, an economics major with concentrations in pre-med and Hispanic studies, had a source of inspiration at home. His mother, an emergency medicine physician, volunteered for a church-sponsored medical mission to Guatemala. Garred was inspired by one of the church group’s activities: distributing recycled prescription eyeglasses to Guatemalans in economically disadvantaged communities.

“It was a low-cost, low-tech service, yet it had a profound impact on people’s lives,” he observed recently.

“What if we could find a way to bump up the volume?” Garred mused at the time with his younger sister, Megan. The siblings translated their idea into action, and “Glasses for Guatemala” (G4G) was born.

Sight for Sore Eyes

In August 2012, Garred packed a suitcase with 900 pairs of recycled eyeglasses, provided by a local Lions Club, and headed to Guatemala City.

He stayed at the home of the secretary general of the Concejo Ecumenico (CE), a Christian service group, and his wife, a CE coordinator, in the nearby city of Chimaltenango. They divided the glasses into three equal piles: one for Guatemala City, one for Chimaltenango and one for the city of Quetzaltenango. The pastor of the church in Chimaltenango invited the young American visitor to address his Sunday congregation and present the gift of 300 pairs of glasses. The pastor then explained how he and other church members would work to bring the eyewear to the community.

A volunteer points to the eye chart during a screening
A volunteer points to the eye chart during a screening
Garred also spent a day working in a clinic with a CE team “to prescribe glasses to a very long line of Guatemalans.” He showed the volunteers how to use a Snellen eye chart “to yield a close approximation of a lens prescription” –a technique he learned from his mom. The secretary general and his wife then distributed the remaining glasses to those in need.

That maiden voyage became the template for subsequent G4G trips funded, in part, by a growing network of business and nonprofit partners. To date, G4G has delivered 8,500 pairs of eyeglasses, supplied mostly by the Lions Club. (At the club’s regional center in New Jersey, members use a “lensometer” to measure the lens strength of donated glasses. Then they label them so they can be matched to appropriate recipients.)

A highlight of Garred’s second trip, several months after graduating from BC and after starting a job as an analyst at a Boston strategy consulting firm, was meeting Dr. James Gamble, an optometrist from Missouri. Dr. Gamble set up an eye clinic in the mountain town of Chichicastenango. He trained local residents to give simple eye exams and to identify individuals whose problems required referral to a physician.

“I worked alongside Jim and translated his instructions to the volunteers,” said Garred, who speaks fluent Spanish.

An Eye-Opening Experience

On that trip Garred had a life-changing experience.

Garred Greenberg (bottom row, second from left) with local volunteers
Garred Greenberg (bottom row, second from left) with local volunteers
He recalled, “We were giving out glasses, when a lady started crying. She embraced me and kissed my cheek, and said she was thrilled to be able to read her Bible for the first time in ages. It struck me how something I’d started as a side project had a tremendous impact on this person.”
He continued, “Looking back on the experience afterward, I felt I’d accomplished more in that single moment than I had in a whole year working in consulting. It helped drive me toward medicine.”

A friend studying at Einstein told him about the school’s strong emphasis on global health. “It sounded like the place where I wanted to be,” said Garred. Now in his second year at the College of Medicine, he serves on the boards of Einstein’s global health and ophthalmology interest groups.

Jimmy Lee, M.D.
Jimmy Lee, M.D.
This past summer, Garred worked with Dr. Jimmy Lee, assistant professor of ophthalmology & visual sciences at Einstein and director of refractive surgery at Montefiore, assisting on a study to determine the cost-effectiveness of different treatments for a common complication of cataract surgery. “Garred did cost-benefit analysis using a computational model. His business background made him a perfect fit for the project,” said Dr. Lee.

Garred also shadowed Dr. Lee in his clinic on Montefiore’s Hutchinson campus. “It was inspiring to see how, in a couple of minutes, he could do a cataract surgery and give vision and hope to a patient. It showed me what you can do beyond glasses, if you have the proper training.”

Dr. Lee, in turn, is impressed with Garred’s project. “Programs like Glasses for Guatemala are often the only way people in underserved communities have access to eye care,” he said, noting that a basic eye exam can reveal not only conditions in the eyes, such as cataracts and glaucoma, but systemic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Growing the Vision

Meanwhile, G4G is coming into its own. The organization recently received official status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. In addition to Garred and his sister, the all-volunteer staff now includes a marketing director, a finance director and a website designer. His colleagues keep the organization running while Garred pursues his medical studies.

Garred recently returned from his fourth Guatemala trip, funded by the generous donations of G4G supporters. It was G4G’s second foray into more rural areas of the Central American nation.

He and another team member arrived with 1,800 pairs of eyeglasses. With help from the CE, they set up two clinics and fitted more than 200 people with glasses.

“The demand was high,” he reported. “The lines of people were never-ending. I made sure to train local volunteers who could distribute the remaining glasses after we left Guatemala.”

Looking Ahead

Dr. Roy S. Chuck, M.D., Ph.D.
Roy Chuck, M.D.
Where does G4G go from here? “The price of eyeglasses is inflated,” observed the former business strategist. “It would be interesting to see if you could produce glasses cheaply enough so that most Guatemalans could afford them. If you could break even, a program like ours could become self-sustaining.”

For now, though, Garred will think globally and act locally. Dr. Roy Chuck, chair of ophthalmology & visual sciences at Einstein and Montefiore, connected him with a Lions Club chapter in the Bronx that conducts eye screenings for children; after meeting, the chapter members agreed to apprise Garred of potential volunteer opportunities for Einstein students.

“It’s well known that visual compromise directly affects an individual’s work productivity and, even more important, his or her quality of life,” said Dr. Chuck, who serves as another mentor for Garred. “A simple pair of glasses to correct simple refractive errors can be life changing, whether one lives in a small town in Guatemala or right here in the Bronx.”

Students interested in getting involved with the Bronx Lions Club or the ophthalmology interest group should contact Garred. To learn more about Glasses for Guatemala or to find out how to get involved, visit www.glassesforguatemala.com.

 

Photo Gallery

(To view slideshow of photo gallery, click on an image below; then move your mouse over the left or right margins to navigate.)

Garred Greenberg (bottom row, second from left) with local volunteers Garred with a volunteer and member of the community who had vision screening A volunteer points to the eye chart during a screening Garred uses a special tool he created, with lenses for -1, -1.25 and -1.5 corrections, to test peoples’ vision viewing an eye chart Garred tests the eyeglasses to make sure the prescription is the right strength A woman uses Garred’s tool during her vision test A woman has her vision tested as a volunteer looks on A happy couple after getting their eyeglasses A group shows off their new eyeglasses Brothers and their mom after they received their eyeglasses

Posted on: Wednesday, November 02, 2016