How has this 17-year-old’s life just started?

MEET LWAZI. This is the day in April 2018 that he saw properly for the first time in his life. Until then, he could only see two centimetres in front of his face. Though 17, he was still in primary school and a recluse in his community. Rural eye care charity Grace Vision visited his school, discovered the severity of his eye problems and made glasses for him. Finally, he can learn to read and start his life anew
The optometrist who enabled Lwazi to see again is DON THORROLD who works with Grace Vision in Zithulele, a tiny village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Don, 55, moved there last year with his wife Charlotte, who runs the admin at Grace Vision. He told THISLIFE ONLINE the story of Lwazi and others like him in the area…

WHERE DID YOU COME ACROSS LWAZI? During a school screening programme in a very remote area that we only manage to visit once every two months. Lwazi was withdrawn and clearly battling in life, and I think people thought he was a bit backward. He was extremely short-sighted and could only see two centimetres in front of his eyes: beyond that everything was blurry moving shapes. He liked to play soccer but told us the other children didn’t want him on the field. I ordered the glasses and wasn’t there when he got them fitted, but I hear he smiled shyly throughout the process. It can feel quite strange to have your vision restored, and people often feel that the ground is moving away from them.

Optometrist Don Thorrold and his wife Charlotte have made a dramatic lifestyle change to serve needs in rural Africa. Despite its challenges, the move has bought them ‘a sense of well-being and satisfaction’

HOW DID YOU COME TO WORK AT GRACE VISION? Charlotte and I had both felt a call to rural Africa for a long time but never thought it could work out. I had a franchise at Muller’s Optometrists [a leading South African group] and in 2017 we started feeling we should sell it. We prayed about it and realised a month later that we both still wanted to sell.

The very next day I got an email with the subject line: ‘Optometrist couple needed in Eastern Cape.’ After reading it and watching the videos about Grace Vision, we could hardly sleep and felt a calling. This was very unusual because I’m not a fast decision maker! We visited Zithulele Hospital where Grace Vision is based and a lot had to happen for it to work out, but the pull was strong.

Grace Vision serves a rural community of 120 000. It can take two hours for the mobile clinic to reach a village

YOUR WORKING DAY? We live in a small house in the hospital grounds with a community of about 70 medics. Eight of us work with Grace Vision. The hospital is situated in the heart of a tiny village with one very small grocery shop, and serves a community of 120 000 people living in rondavels [huts] scattered over the hills.  

I wake up around 6am and quite often go for a run for 40 minutes or so on a hilly and gravelly – but extremely beautiful – route. This morning my run included an incredible sunrise! Our team meets in the office and then splits for two tasks: eye screening in schools, plus driving our truck to an area to set it up as a mobile clinic.

Don and Charlotte with mobile clinic and team members. ‘Our team is one of the very best things about the job,’ he says

ECONOMICS IN THE AREA? It’s extremely poverty-stricken, with very few jobs available. People who can get jobs work in mining, teaching or nursing, but most simply subsist and grow vegetables.

THE EYE ISSUES? There are no optometrists in the area, so people who need reading or prescription glasses have not had access to restoring normal sight. Grace Vision provides this screening service at no charge.

Cataracts are very common. There’s a big backlog of people who’ve literally been blinded by them. Grace Vision has its own operating theatre at the hospital where two surgeons from Mtatha Hospital operate for us on about 20 cataract patients once a month. We also have people volunteering from elsewhere in South Africa or abroad for three or four days in a row. They take time off from their work to do this and fund themselves, which is very special.

Some people with cataracts may have been blind for a couple of years and it’s incredible when we take off their bandages the next day. Some cry, most laugh, some start walking around counting the number of people in the room to show they can see. They’re always so grateful and usually break out in songs of praise and worship!

Savour the singing of people who have just had their sight and dignity restored

OTHER EYE ISSUES? Glaucoma: if we pick it up early enough, we can stop people going blind. Inflammation, infections and allergies are also common in young kids. And of course short-sightedness is very common. It’s crazy how many children and adults have battled their whole lives because of it. We change their lives simply by giving them free glasses.

We try to reach the maximum possible number of people in our area by giving the local clinics notice of when our truck will be coming. We visit some clinics three times a month, others only once every two months depending on how busy the area is. It often takes two hours to get to a clinic as the roads are rough dirt tracks so lunch is something I used to have when I worked in the city!

Magade (left), 29, was blind from cataracts in both eyes and had to be led around until she came across Grace Vision. Having one cataract removed has enabled her to see, and her sight will further improve when she returns for an op on her other eye

WHO FUNDS GRACE VISION? It happens as we go! Last year we thought we could only keep going another three months, but somehow money came in. Mines, corporates and individuals donate to us, and we staff accept that essentially we’re doing volunteer work for which we get paid something!

LIFESTYLE CHANGES FROM CAPE TOWN TO ZITHULELE? You’ve got to have a water-tight grocery list because the closest shop (which some might not even call a shop) is about 25 minutes away and the next is a three-hour round trip! Our social life is limited but there’s a very good community of people and everyone helps everyone. We’re all in WhatsApp groups to help each other when we go shopping, and we share a few chickens for eggs. There are always lots of kids playing around and people working in veggie gardens. We celebrate birthdays with tea and cake, or get together in the evening.

Relationships are cherished by the people of Zithulele, where life is hard and unemployment extremely high, says Don

WHAT’S ULTRA RURAL LIFE LIKE? The local people have a lot of struggles here but they also have a lot of time for you. Relationships are more important here than getting things done. We walk to the beach and swim in the warm sea, and when we braai [barbeque] on our little deck we can see the sea in the distance.

BEST AND WORST PARTS OF YOUR NEW LIFE? Best: satisfaction with the kind of work we do and the kind of people we’re doing it with. Plus our Xhosa colleagues: the Grace Vision team is one of the very best things!

Perk of the job. Where else does a job provide a sunrise over the sea like this every day?

Worst: I suppose when things don’t work. My computer’s currently not working so well and when our washing machine broke down it was a struggle to get it repaired with the nearest big town, East London, four hours away. We’re also missing out on our first grandchild who’s only two months old but Grace Vision was very generous and gave us two weeks in Cape Town over the birth.

There will always be sacrifices and challenges, especially the days when you see blind people you could have helped if you’d met them six months earlier. But we also feel we’re doing God’s will here, which gives us such a sense of well-being and satisfaction.’

See schoolgirl Dabula finally read her school blackboard (and look out for the little children’s beautiful shy smiles!) 
Looking for a chance to change someone’s life? To donate to this extraordinary cause and find out more about Grace Vision click here  
Grace Vision | Standard Bank, Blue Route, South Africa | Account: 072051604
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