Grace is Helping Other Kids See
Thousands of children and teens around the world can’t afford the glasses they need.
Grace, 16, is trying to change that.
By Grace Lee-Niosi, as told to Brooke Lea Foster
It’s early in the afternoon in mid-January, and I’m in a school. Only I’m not reviewing for midterms, as I’d normally be. I’m 2,000 miles from home, in a foreign classroom with dirty floors, no electricity, and no air-conditioning. I’m sweating as I rummage through boxes—about 400 of them—in the 80-degree heat. I’ve been there since 8 in the morning, and I’m not leaving until 7 at night.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see two girls about my age. They seem embarrassed to be there and I feel uncomfortable helping them. Still, my instincts tell me to put them at ease. Using hand gestures and facial expressions (I don’t speak much Spanish), we begin “chatting.” Then I hand them what they came for—the things I had been digging to find.
It always feels so good to give people their first pair of eyeglasses.
Not a Vacation
I was 11 years old when I first visited this school-turned-temporary-clinic in Nicaragua, which I now know is the largest country in Central America and the second-poorest nation in the entire Western Hemisphere. My mom had asked me if I wanted to come along to volunteer with VOSH International, a group that brings eyeglasses to disadvantaged people around the world. I said yes. What kid wouldn’t jump at a chance to visit somewhere new? I had no idea my life—or the way I looked at it, at least—was about to change big-time.
I still remember boarding a bus with the other volunteers on that first trip, driving three hours on a bumpy dirt road to the small town where we’d be working. I was fascinated by the view outside my window: Tiny run-down houses lined the road, all made of scrap metal and wood.
I’d read about this kind of poverty in school, but I’d never seen it. Suddenly, it
was everywhere I looked.
An Eye-Opening Experience
The clinic works like this: People who need glasses sometimes travel hours to get there and wait in unbelievably long lines that stretch down the block. Once it’s their turn, an eye doctor examines them, and they bring their eyeglass prescription to me. I dig through boxes of donations to find lenses that match it.
I’ll never forget how one 70-year-old woman reacted when I gave her a pair of bifocals. She marveled at all of the things she could finally see—a poster on the wall, the lines of my face. This really affected me.
I’d always assumed that everyone could get glasses if they needed them. Now, it made me wonder. If people in Nicaragua can’t get glasses, what else did they need? A house, food, and clear eyesight—these were all things I had taken for granted.
A New Outlook
In January, I volunteered at the clinic for the fifth time, and I couldn’t imagine a year without it. The weeklong trip always puts my problems into perspective. Many of the poorest people I’ve ever met in Nicaragua are also the happiest. They don’t have much, but they’re so appreciative of what they do have. Plus they live in the moment. In my town, everyone is always rushing, worrying about what’s next!
In fact, when I’m stressed, I think of this one family. I walk by their house on my way to the clinic each morning, and they’re always outside eating breakfast, laughing, and having a good time. When they see me walk past—thanks to the glasses I’ve helped to give them—they smile and wave.
It gets me every time.
I love what it feels like to help somebody else—it’s unmatched by any other feeling in the world. That’s why my trips to Nicaragua have inspired me to give back in other ways. A few years ago, I raised money to help a girl in Africa attend school, and when Hurricane Sandy hit my state, I helped rebuild homes. I also volunteer at the local library every Friday.
Volunteering has even made me braver. I’m terrified of performing in public, but recently I went onstage to play Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” on guitar at a Hurricane Sandy fund-raiser. I figured if I was strong enough to rebuild homes after a superstorm, I could probably perform one song.
And I did.