Tzu Chi USA’s Mobile Vision Care Reaches New York’s Hispanic Community

Northeast  |  January 29, 2021
Tzu Chi Vision Mobile Clinic serves New York City’s Hispanic community for the first time since the pandemic started, providing free eye exams and glasses for low-income residents. Photo/Hector Muniente

Written by Daphne Liu
Translated by Melody Cao
Edited by Diana Chang, Ida Eva Zielinska

Every other hour, one could hear a cheer from the Tzu Chi USA Vision Mobile Clinic van parked in Elmhurst, a neighborhood in the borough of Queens in New York City. Inside, a volunteer would be holding up a pair of prescription glasses that the eye care team had just made, then presenting it to their new owner as everyone around them watched. The collective cheers that followed aptly expressed the joy and gratitude of both the giver and the care recipient.

Inside Tzu Chi Vision Mobile Clinic vans, care recipients can choose a pair of eyeglass frames that they like and fits best with the help of trained Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Hector Muniente

The Sun Shone Brightly on this Special Day

New York City in late autumn and early winter begins to get chilly, and it’s rare for temperatures to reach 68°F. Yet on November 7, 2020, it was bright and sunny. Perhaps the weather was mirroring the enthusiastic warmth of the Hispanic individuals who would receive Tzu Chi USA’s care that day. That’s undoubtedly how the team felt early that morning, around 8:00 AM, as the Tzu Chi Vision Mobile Clinic vans pulled up and parked outside the Centro Civico Colombiano in Elmhurst, where they would be providing a day of vision care free of charge.

The first mobile vision care service offered in New York since the start of the pandemic takes place in Elmhurst, the city’s hardest-hit neighborhood. Photo/Hector Muniente

New York Supreme Court Justice Carmen R. Velasquez, a board member of Brigada de Esperanza NY, the non-profit co-hosting this medical outreach event, reminded more than 20 Hispanic volunteers who were there to help, to protect themselves, announcing, “Everyone must wear PPE gowns and masks!” 

To further ensure the safety of volunteers and the public, applicants for vision care were required to pass COVID-19 testing before they came. An appointment system was also in place, whereby the clinic would serve only two cases every 30 minutes, on average, reducing the chances of too many people gathering at one time. 

Justice Velasquez shared that Brigada de Esperanza NY had posted information about the event on its official Facebook page, and in just three days, over 2,900 people viewed it. The organization’s volunteers then received more than 300 calls asking about the free vision care service, hoping to register, which they could, if they met the proper criteria:

As long as you meet the standards for low-income families, our volunteers welcome everyone to apply. You don't need to wait for long; you can get new glasses on the same day!

Justice Carmen Velasquez (middle) is on-site during Tzu Chi USA’s Vision Mobile Clinic’s free outreach event in Elmhurst. Photo/Hector Muniente

Justice Velasquez, who is the first Ecuadorian to serve as a judge for the Civil Court and Supreme Court of the State of New York, first learned about Tzu Chi in 2016, when the foundation provided extensive disaster relief following the tragic earthquake which struck her native country that year. Since then, through Brigada Esperanza NY, she has partnered with Tzu Chi to provide food distributions in New York’s Hispanic communities.  

Justice Velasquez also connected Spanish-speaking community volunteers to a New York-based training program that Tzu Chi initiated, preparing them to assist during vision care outreach such as the one on November 7. On this occasion, she was thrilled to see the graduates of Tzu Chi’s three training courses finally helping for the first time as care recipients got eye exams and free prescription glasses.

Before getting fitted for a new pair of glasses, there are a few eye exams to go through, with the assistance of Spanish-speaking community volunteers trained by Tzu Chi USA. Photo/Hector Muniente

Justice Velasquez took this opportunity to publicly thank Freeman Su, Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Northeast Region, for all the resources it had provided to make this outreach event possible, including the volunteer training program led by optometrist James Chuang. Many care recipients followed suit, thanking Tzu Chi for the free vision care, which many expressed they desperately needed.

A Gift From Heaven

“A pair of glasses costs $300 plus, which is more than my income for a week!” Alicia Degro, a single mother of four children, exclaimed. Her oldest just started college, and the youngest is only in kindergarten. When the pandemic began, her small restaurant business faced closure for months, and even now, its income is half of what it was before. 

The multifocal glasses Alicia was using were severely worn, and she urgently needed a new pair with a more current prescription. However, since her insurance doesn’t cover vision care services, she couldn’t get one – that is until now. She was extremely grateful for the new glasses she got on this day, elaborating how helpful they will be not only for her but also the children:

The great benefit is that I need them because since most children don’t go to class, one has to help them with homework. If I don’t have my glasses, I can’t read.

Following a series of eye exams, Alicia Degro receives the correct prescription for the new multifocal glasses she will get shortly after. Photo/Daphne Liu

Mavro Quintuna, a construction worker with unstable income and no medical insurance, also needed glasses. His eyesight began to deteriorate after middle age, but since he can’t afford glasses, he tried not to pay much attention to the issue. Receiving a pair from Tzu Chi truly felt like a blessing that would increase his safety on the job as well.

I noticed having problems with my eyesight, but without health insurance, it's very difficult to get help. I need to have a clear vision at work, and with these lenses, I can see much better, and the difference is very noticeable.

James Chung, the optometrist in charge of Tzu Chi USA’s Vision Mobile Clinic outreach in New York, confirms Marvo Quintuna’s need for glasses to correct his vision. Photo/Hector Muniente

Tzu Chi Vision Mobile Clinics had previously served underprivileged students in the Greater New York area through the See 2 Succeed program. This nonprofit partnership works alongside schools to offer free eye exams and glasses for children in underserved communities. However, at this medical outreach, most of the appointments served middle-aged and elderly New York residents who needed reading glasses. 

For example, Alberto Alarcon, 66 years old, was one of the care recipients and had trouble reading for many years. Since he couldn’t afford to get glasses with a prescription tailored to his vision correction needs, he relied on drugstore reading glasses. 

Richard Yang, a dentist and volunteer with the New York chapter of Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA), handed the new pair of glasses from Tzu Chi to Alberto, who was eager to try them immediately, marveling at the whole experience of being served by the mobile clinic.

These moments are of happiness because I’m pleased and satisfied through the work that you’ve been doing. I’m able to see again with these glasses. It didn’t take too long, not so much time, about one hour. Thank you once again.

Flanked by Justice Velasquez (left) and TIMA volunteer Richard Yang (right), Alberto Alarcon gives a thumbs-up of heartfelt approval for the new pair of glasses and bamboo bank from Tzu Chi. Photo/Jupiter Chiou

Alberto, and all the care recipients served by Tzu Chi USA’s mobile clinics, also got a bamboo bank to take home so he could contribute to helping others, activating the cycle of love.

They wear glasses that fit them, and [get introduced to] Tzu Chi’s [philosophy]. Everyone can see clearly now, and they’re so moved and excited. That’s our ultimate goal and mission accomplished.

TIMA volunteer Richard Yang explains how to care for their new glasses and, at the same time, introduces Tzu Chi’s missions by giving care recipients a bamboo bank. Photo/Hector Muniente

A total of 22 pairs of new prescription glasses planted 22 seeds of goodness in the hearts of 22 Spanish-speaking New York City residents. The warmth in their hearts as they left Tzu Chi’s free medical outreach matched the glow of the autumn sun on this unseasonably mild day in November 2020.

The seeds of blessings must be sowed whenever their fruits are harvested to ensure that the virtuous cycle continues indefinitely.

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