Open Your Eyes! Volunteering at the John Keells vision project.

By Deshanee Weerasinghe

“Hey, there are eye camps taking place in Galle and Ratnapura, wanna go?” that was Abdul, shouting to Sithija, the guy on his left and I was immediately interested, firstly because I loved the opportunity of travelling outstation and secondly because I had never been to an eye camp before. Since then, I have been part of two eye camps, one in Ratnapura and one at my school, St Lawrence’s convent.

The former, being the eye camp at Ratnapura was held in August  2015 at the Karawita Tea factory, of the John Keells Group,  for the people of the area and the employees of the tea factory itself. Four of us took part in the pogramme in addition to the eye doctor and the representative from Vision 2020, with whom John Keells Foundation has partnered with, to implement some of the eye camps. We departed from Colombo in the early hours of the morning and arrived at our destination by 8 a.m., taking in the early morning scenery that accompanied us. (Though some of us ended up falling asleep few half hours into the drive!). We were warmly welcomed by the Head of Tea Smallholder Factories and an Assistance Vice President of John Keells Holdings PLC Mr Harish Wanasinghe. Even as we got our act together, there were many people lined outside and waiting. The Doctor took us through the process of checking eye sight and the optometric notations that need to be made accordingly.

Although we were continuously on our feet, any tiredness we felt was lost in seeing the people who came in for their vision checkup. Children from the age of 15 to elderly people, some of whom were unsteady on their feet, were whom we spent that entire day with. Some of them required spectacles, while some were asked to present themselves for a cataract consultation on a future date to the Ratnapura Hospital. Regardless of their age however, what struck me most was how the project was touching the lives of people who had very little financial stability, along with which comes all the other hardships and to be able to help these people with something as valuable as their eye sight was invaluable and I felt a rush of gratitude towards John Keells Foundation for organizing this project. It was amazing to see the amount of people that this project was benefitting and for most of them, the expenses of an eye checkup, spectacles or an operation would be something they could have never managed and being able to make at least a minute’s contribution to this cause was something invaluable for me.

The majority of the elderly people who were present at the camp were required to wear spectacles, which were being given out at another part of the factory premises. Around 5% were diagnosed of needing a cataract intervention. The young women in the factory were taken in after the short tea breather. They were all eager to get their vision checked and most of them were quite talkative and entertaining. It took me this little deviation from the beaten track to come to the realization that we hardly appreciate of how much we are blessed with until life gives us an insight such as this into the hardships people who are not as privileged as us go through and this volunteer programme taught me just that. We wound up the camp around 2 p.m and after which Harish from TSHF took us on a familiarization round in the factory. After a well-deserved lunch at the Managers Bungalow, which was set at the outskirts of the factory itself, we departed for Colombo, feeling tired, yet fulfilled.

The eye camp at St. Lawrence’s School was a half a day’s project, where three of us, Nilu, Shenuka and myself (all past students of the school) volunteered to assist the officials from the Health Ministry to perform eye checkups on our school girls from grades 4, 7 and 9.  Nevertheless, it was an invaluable experience to be a part of both these projects, which was positively touching the lives of many people, most of whom we will probably never meet again in our lives, and most of whom who deserve better than what life has given them.