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'When one lady with poor vision got her glasses she went round hugging people shouting I can see, I can see'

On a visit to Kenya a decade ago Carryduff optician Gillian Gervais brought the gift of sight. Now she's going back with her two sons

By Stephanie Bell

When Co Down optician Gillian Gervais volunteered to set up a week-long eye clinic in an impoverished town in Africa 10 years ago, nothing prepared her for the sight which greeted her on her first morning.

Hundreds of people who had struggled for a lifetime unable to see thronged the church grounds where Gillian was giving free eye tests and glasses.

"When I saw so many people I actually took the shakes and thought 'Oh my goodness, I can't do this, there is only me'. One of the church elders prayed for me to be calm and it worked," she says.

Gillian has never forgotten how that one week transformed the lives of so many in the village of Zubukia in Kenya and has always wanted to return.

This year, to mark the 20th anniversary of her clinic, Gillian Gervais Opticians in Carryduff, she plans to show her gratitude by returning to Africa.

And this time she will be taking the two eldest of her three boys, Jack (16) and Andrew (15).

Eight-year-old Ross is still too young for the trip and will stay at home in Belfast with his dad, Richard.

The family are visiting two local missionaries, Gary and Mary Reid from Saintfield, who work with the Presbyterian Acacia Grove Mission among the Maasai people in Olkinyei in southwest Kenya.

They are planning their visit to coincide with the building of a new respite centre for disabled people in the area which Gillian hopes her boys will be able to contribute to during their 10- day visit.

An appeal for donations of glasses for her first trip saw 800 pairs handed in by locals, which Gillian took to Africa to give to people who had no access to eye care.

This time she is again appealing for donations of old glasses as well as disability equipment for the new centre including Zimmer frames, crutches or anything which might be of help.

"Of the 800 pairs of glasses I took with me the first time, every single pair matched someone," she says. "It wasn't even a case of saying 'They are close and will do you', they were perfect.

"I think there were four pairs I had to make up when I came home, which I just posted out.

"People were so generous and I am hoping they will be again. Any old pair of glasses that are in good condition would be very welcome, along with any disability equipment.

"Because babies are born in fields in the area we are going to, there is a lot of disability and no equipment. A pair of crutches could transform the quality of life for someone."

Transforming quality of life is what her trip is all about and also exactly what Gillian experienced during her first visit.

"When I went 10 years ago it was with a group from my church, Orangefield Presbyterian," she says.

"As I got the glasses into the shop, my girls at work cleaned them, measured and catalogued them.

"Also my boys were at Sullivan Prep and with my business being in Carryduff, both the boys' school and Carryduff Primary cleared their cupboards out and gave me lots of books to take for the children and for teachers.

"I had a couple of helpers at the clinic when I went out there and a letter chart and loose lenses which I brought with me.

"There was one man in his 60s who wouldn't look at the chart and indicated he was there because he couldn't read up close. When he got the glasses on and could see to read, the tears just ran down his face.

"There was another woman, who would have probably have been in her 50s, who had blurred vision and hadn't been able to see properly all of her life.

"When she got her glasses she went down the street hugging people and telling them 'I can see, I can see'.

"I actually missed the lovely bit when the glasses were given to the people for the first time as I was doing the tests and prescriptions in a different room and apparently it was hugs all round, but I did get all of their lovely blessings.

"There was one lady who had come three mornings in a row and found the queue so long she was always at the back of it and wasn't seen.

"She was so desperate she stayed overnight in the village on the third day so that she could be first in the queue the next day."

She adds: "It was life-transforming for those people, even for simple things like planting seeds. If you can't see the seed in your hand, you don't know what it is or if it is a good seed or a bad seed, then that makes life very difficult."

Gillian was amused to find some teenagers in her queue with perfectly good eyesight.

She laughs when she recalls: "They were after sunglasses and I had only two really ugly pairs as I didn't think to bring any. I offered them to the teenagers and they just got up and walked out. This time I would like to be able to bring sunglasses for the young people if anyone would like to donate them."

There are opticians in the cities in Africa, but the poorer people from the towns and villages cannot afford to pay for tests or buy glasses, so most have no hope of having their poor vision corrected.

Gillian told of a chemistry teacher she met who taught in a girls' grammar school and was paid two US dollars a day. With a pair of glasses costing £20, it would take a week's wage from a professional to buy a pair, putting them out of reach of many people.

She says she vowed after her first visit to return one day and because she feels so grateful that her own business is such a success marking its 20th year, she wants to celebrate by giving something back.

Her boys are not sure what to expect of their unusual trip with their mum and while they see it as an adventure, Gillian hopes they will also learn some life lessons from the experience.

"I got as much out of the first trip as the hundreds who had their eyesight improved," she says.

"I spend my days here making small changes to peoples' glasses which don't make a huge difference but will make them happier.

"To have the chance to help people who have never been able to see is just amazing for me as an optician.

"I feel very much that I was meant to go and there was a reason for it - and I feel the same about this trip and bringing the boys. The Africans are very keen that you don't spend all your time working and that you see some of the region. I was taken in a river boat along a large lake where there were hundreds of hippos and giraffe's heads appearing through the trees.

"The boys are looking forward to that and also hopefully helping out with the building of the new centre. I want them to experience what life is like for other people and I would love for them to come away with a heart for it.

"And who knows, maybe they might want to return on their own?"

Anyone who would like to donate old glasses can leave them for Gillian in their local opticians. Contact Gillian about other items on telephone 028 9081 2890 or email gilliangervaisoptician@gmail.com

Refuge for children living in fear

Gary and Mary Reid from Saintfield have been with the Presbyterian’s Acacia Grove Mission (AGM) since it was asset up in 2005. They live right in Olkinyei, in the spiritual heartland of the colourful Maasai tribe, working close with the people.

A large part of their work is focused on caring and offering practical help and a refuge for vulnerable children who have suffered or been threatened with abuse and neglect.

Some of these frightened children have fled to the mission seeking help and refuge.

Some are known as ‘night runners’, running through dense bush, with the very real danger of meeting wild animals, under the cover of darkness.

A major problem is the horrifying ritual of female genital mutilation, which many young girls run from, while others are trying to escape being forced into child marriage with a stranger. The mission offers a refuge for these children while the District Children’s Officer in Narok deals with their cases.

It has been known for families to come to the mission and try to take the child by force, which has caused the mission to go into shutdown for the protection of the vulnerable child.

AGM, alongside a Christian community based organisation, Maasai Action for Change, are working hard to reconcile the children with their families as family life is a crucial part of Maasai culture.

For further details on the Mission and its work, visit www.presbyterianireland.org/Mission/

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