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A Detroit Lakes reporter in Mexico: Helping the poor to get eyeglasses

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For a good share of my years at DL Newspapers, Armand and Mari Radke have been organizing trips to Mazatlan, Mexico, through the Lions Club, where they fit the people with free eyeglasses.

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And for a good share of those years, Armand has been working on me to join them on one of the mission trips.

I just got back from my second one this past weekend, and I have to say, I wish I were still there soaking up the sun, the laidback lifestyle, the Coronas and the feeling of knowing we're doing something good for others.

From March 17-24, 11 Lions members from area clubs, a friend of mine and I traveled to Mazatlan. We helped correct the vision of over 1,000 people, saw the sights in Mazatlan, and simply took a break from the regular hubbub of life.

A working vacation

For three days, Tuesday-Thursday, the 13 of us served 1,029 people of Mexico, checking their eyes, finding them a pair of glasses that best fit their prescription, and finally helping them see clearly -- some for the very first time.

One of the more memorable patients I helped was a young girl about 10 years old who had never had glasses before.

When I was finding glasses for her, I had no idea she hadn't previously worn glasses, I just knew that her prescription was quite strong.

For anyone who has glasses or contacts, you can appreciate these numbers: her prescription was -8.5 in her right eye and -9.5 in her left. How on earth did this child ever see anything in school, anything throughout her day?

Patients like that that make you realize the need for trips like this one. We gave her the ability to have a completely different take on life. It certainly makes me appreciate my simple prescription quite a bit more, too.

In the past, the local Lions -- who organize the trip with the Mazatlan Pacifico Lions Club -- have traveled to various locations throughout Mazatlan and the surrounding communities to reach the poorer people who clearly couldn't afford their own glasses.

But, for safety reasons, the club stays in Mazatlan now at the university, Universidad Autonoma de Durango, for the three days.

A plea to donate

I don't know all the locations around town, but there are many. Boxes sitting here and there with the Lions symbol on it, asking people to donate their old eyeglasses. Like many people, I never thought twice about those boxes until two years ago when I made my first trip to Mazatlan.

After my first trip, I donated all of my old glasses, which were just sitting in a drawer for no reason at all other than I didn't know what to do with them.

But, it was this year that I really saw why it's important to donate them. And my chance to plead with you to donate your old ones as well.

Every year that we go to Mexico and help with this mission, you wouldn't believe the glasses we pull out and toss. You're probably thinking, it's a free pair of glasses, they should be happy with what they get. I'll admit, I'm a cynic, I thought that too.

Right up until about Wednesday afternoon, and certainly on Thursday, when the glasses were getting picked over and we had to hand out some awful looking things that no one wants to be caught dead in.

And I promise, I'm not being too harsh or exaggerating.

Most of us loved getting the older men because they couldn't care less what glasses they were given. And when we got people who were picky, we told them it's this or nothing because you can only be sympathetic to a point.

But, when you have a teenager and you give them a pair of glasses from the 1980s -- no, I'm not exaggerating, if anything being nice and not saying the 1960s -- that are half the size of their entire face, how do you expect peers aren't going to pick on that kid. Those are the kinds of people we saw that made me not only want to dig a little extra through the box for a smaller pair of glasses but also makes me want to ask you to donate your used glasses.

Kids and teens go through enough garbage in school, why not help them out a bit?

And if you think you have a different prescription that no one else is going to use, think again. I pulled glasses anywhere from -.25 to -10.0 and on the plus side as well. Not to mention high to no astigmatism and single vision to bifocals.

Time to relax

Several years ago, I went on a mission trip through church to Ecuador. We helped build the foundation for a school, and everything we did was hard work. Moving rocks and earth, mixing cement, etc. And we did that for all but one day while on the mission trip.

This trip, we worked for three very long days, but we also got about four days to play. I have to say, at this stage in my life, I like this type of working vacation much better.

We flew in on Saturday and by that evening, I had already bought three pieces of jewelry. I swore I was done with my own souvenirs.

The first year I went, I went crazy buying everybody and their brother multiple souvenirs. My friend and I kept saying it didn't count because it was in pesos, not dollars. When I got home though, I realized my bank account obviously didn't understand the difference.

This year, my daughter was the sole recipient of souvenirs. All she wanted was sand and seashells, so she was easy to please. I couldn't resist a few outfits for her, too.

So after being bummed about being done shopping by the first day, my friend Amy, thankfully, reminded me that Mother's Day is approaching and I could certainly buy more. For my mom, not me, of course.

Since we saved a bunch of money not buying souvenirs and time not shopping, it gave us the means to do other activities.

I attended my first -- and last -- bullfight. The guy who sold us the tickets may have misled the silly gringos a tad on the amount of gore we'd see, but it was an experience, nonetheless.

The first bullfight about made me pass out when I saw what they did to the poor bull. I can see now why there were people protesting outside when we went into the arena. After that, I didn't watch when they gave the bull the final, life-ending, stab.

Point is: life is different in Mexico. Bullfights are a part of their culture. It wouldn't fly here. Other major differences: Life is laid back there. I mean very laid back.

We were riding on a bus back into the city after hiking up one of the highest functioning lighthouses in the world, and we got stuck behind a stalled trolley car on the street. After sitting there for probably 10 minutes, our driver finally got out to see what was the matter and eventually it was pushed off to the side of the street so we could pass.

During that time, which seemed much longer than 10 minutes, there were no angry people honking horns or shouting at them to move. Here, we take a different route just because we don't want to sit and wait for a 1-minute train.

Which leads me to another major difference: the traffic. Wow. Let's just say I'm happy to still be living. There are no lines on the streets or roads dividing the lanes. The use of signal lights on cars is not quite obsolete but let's just say they're not used much. Traffic lights, well, they were adhered to most of the time, but not always.

We feared for our lives every time we crossed the street. It doesn't feel like pedestrians are looked out for much down there.

The Mexican newspapers were also very interesting to page through. Pictures of dead bodies on the street filled the pages.

All that aside, Mazatlan, at least where we spent time, is beautiful. The view from our balcony was gorgeous -- palm trees, the ocean and sand for miles, and endless greenery and flowers. The temperatures were between 70-80 while we were there, and if it got breezy in the evenings, a light jacket solved it.

I understand I missed a nice week here in Minnesota while I was gone, but I have to say, when I stepped off the plane in Fargo Saturday night, I knew I wasn't in Mexico anymore. If it weren't for missing my daughter and my soft bed, I could have easily stayed another week in paradise.

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