June 11, 2009 at 7:41 a.m.

The Eye Guy receives more than he gives doing the Lions work

The Eye Guy receives more than he gives doing the Lions work
The Eye Guy receives more than he gives doing the Lions work

Jim Koenig has a nice condo in Lindstrom where he can gaze on the quiet waters of North Lindstrom Lake from his balcony. He could easily be content just spending time with his fishing pole and visiting with neighbors. But for several days early this summer, he stepped out of his comfortable life, to serve the Lions Club International mission of bringing sight to underprivileged people.

Koenig, a Chisago Lakes Lions member, recently returned from Ecuador where he spent time with the VOSH organization, bringing volunteer optometric services to humanity. Lions International has been collecting eyeglasses at Lions functions and at official drop-off sites for decades-- delivering eyewear to the needy to fulfill the service organization's mission.

This was Koenig's second trip to the southern hemisphere with the Lions. He belonged to Lions in the‚ÄąTwin Cities before moving to Lindstrom a couple years ago, and he dispensed eyewear in Venezuela through that club.

Koenig was thrilled the Chisago Lakes Lions assisted in expenses for this recent trip. He says the local group is great, he feels like he fit right in.

Distributing eyewear means more to Koenig than simply doing a good deed. He explains he has macular degeneration in one eye so he personally connects with anyone experiencing sight difficulties.

Koenig helped fit glasses on Ecuadorans 82-years-old to grade school children. "They were all very gracious, their faces just lit up," he added. While not much of a Spanish-speaker, he had no trouble translating the universal expressions of appreciation and gratitude.

Koenig traveled with several other Minnesota Lions members and two volunteer doctors, one from North Dakota and one from South Dakota. Additional medical backup at the Ecuadoran clinic included local University students of optometry, and six Canadian students of optometry also volunteered.

Koenig and his travel companions hauled 4,000 donated eyeglasses by airplane, departing Minneapolis-St. Paul airport May 13 and on to Miami and then Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Koenig said low level officials at the Ecuador airport had some issues with authorizing the 13 boxes of glasses; but after much detente they agreed to accept copies of passports, signed and sworn to by the travelers, that they would not "sell" the eyewear. Then they were allowed to continue their journey.

From the airport the group drove north and west to Portoviejo, where the eyeglass distribution clinic was located. Here Koenig observed throngs of people lined up at the main doors to receive the eyewear. His work team adjusted and presented 2,525 glasses.

"We worked four days, 12 hours a day," he said.

Wireframe glasses can be manipulated fairly easily to fit a recipient and plastic frames were lightly warmed in a frying pan to make them pliable.

Eyewear is sorted and disinfected before even being boxed for distribution.

Koenig has also volunteered many hours at a site in Crystal at one of the Lions four warehouses where the prep work gets done. At storage sites the glasses are divided into bifocal and non-bifocal, and are cleaned and repaired, then bagged individually with the prescription identified. Some of the Ecuador mission companions he'd already met while volunteering in warehouse prep.

What truly impressed Koenig about the Ecuador experience was his host family. He stayed with Luis and Sonja, their two boys and one daughter. "They could not have been nicer," he added. "It was more than anyone could ask for."

The poverty he encounters while on these Lions missions is so pervasive, he says, there is no way any of the people he dispenses eyeglasses to could possibly afford to buy them. "They are selling bunches of bananas on the street to try to earn a little money," he adds. Bringing the gift of sight is such a basic but wonderful thing to be a part of, he feels as if he's the lucky one.

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