On most Fridays you will find Dr. Pasqualino Marcantonio working in either Dorchester Penitentiary or Atlantic Institution as an optometrist for offenders. That is, when he isn’t travelling to many of the world’s poorest countries providing free eye care and glasses.
Whether working with offenders here or patients abroad, the one thing that Dr. Marcantonio says he has noticed is that people are the same, with the same hopes and the same needs. It is the barriers that some of us face that create marginalized populations.
On March 23, 2018, in celebration of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Employment Equity and Diversity Committee (EEDC) hosted Dr. Marcantonio at Atlantic RHQ to speak about a special project that is close to his heart: The Eye Train.
The Eye Train, launched by Canadian Optometrists, is a service located in the Philippines that provides free eye care to residents in one of the country’s poorest communities.
Dr. Marcantonio explained how he and a team of colleagues travel - at their own expense – around the globe to help the less fortunate by providing free eye exams and free glasses. In a typical two-week outreach project, he treats an average of 2,000 men, women and children. Giving them better sight means giving them a better life.
Dr. Marcantonio’s involvement in this initiative started in back in 2008, when out of the blue he received a general email asking if he was interested in going on an eye care project in the Philippines. Optometry had been good to him and his family and he had an urge to give back, so he applied and went to Manila for two weeks. What he saw and experienced had a deep influence on his life. He was hooked on wanting to help others in the way he was best equipped to do it – with eye care.
“Now, optometrists don't save lives or go into war zones like Doctors Without Borders or other similar NGOs,” Dr. Marcantonio says. “Our strength is that we make people see, and it follows that this makes their life easier and maybe will change some lives for the better with just a pair of glasses.”
In 2012, he returned to Manila to do a two-week project inside the main train station located in the worst slum area of the city called Tondo. During this project, the optometrists examined about 500 patients per day and gave out about 450 pairs of glasses. On the last day, they noticed that the lineup of patients waiting to be seen was never-ending. They helped thousands of people each week, but still there are more waiting to be seen.
They decided, with the help of Nica Roma – a self-made businesswoman who wanted to give back to her community – to build a permanent clinic that would provide vision services year-round, in addition to their yearly two-week projects.
A charitable foundation called The Special Philippine Eye Care Solutions Foundation (SPECS), was created to manage the clinic and the Philippine National Railway (PNR) leased the land for $1 per year. Then Dr. Marcantonio had the challenge of completely equipping an optometry clinic in Manila on a shoestring budget.
Once he arrived back home, he immediately sent out an email to all his optometry colleagues explaining the project and asking for their old equipment. The response was overwhelming. In very little time, he had received all the instrumentation needed to fully equip a modern optometry office, all for free. The foundation in Manila was overwhelmed with the generosity of the New Brunswick optometry community.
Each time Dr. Marcantonio spoke to someone about the project and the obstacles he faced with obtaining the equipment and having it delivered to Manila, the response was “let me make a call.” Each time, people would come back with a solution to his immediate obstacle, usually with zero cost.
A warehouse to house the equipment, a builder to create the equipment, wood to build the crates, a truck to take the equipment to the ship, the 30-day boat trip to Manila – this all occurred because of the generosity of his colleagues and everyday people in the community. Dr Marcantonio was amazed and humbled by the generosity of all of these people.
Meanwhile, in Manila, they decided to build the clinic using free, decommissioned railway cars. The Manila team had removed all the contents of the cars and power washed them prior to the Dr. Marcantonio’s arrival.
Once in Manila, Dr. Marcantonio’s team began the arduous task of refurbishing the decommissioned railway car into an eye clinic. The rail cars had to be manually pushed about half a kilometre down the track to their permanent location right beside the main train station. They even had to lay new track to get to the final location.
They installed flooring and electrical and took apart the shipping crates to use the wood to build the partitions, walls, counters and cabinets. Nothing was wasted. Finally, plumbing, vinyl tiles, painting and drapery were added.
Dr. Marcantonio says he is a natural skeptic, but this project showed him what can be done if you really put your mind to it.
Since opening day in 2013, they have examined over 50,000 patients between the clinic and the outreach programs around the slum. The clinic is also used by the optometry school as a training site for final year students.
The fact that a small group of optometrists was willing to donate all the equipment necessary to set up an optometry clinic halfway around the world, and help people they will probably never meet, speaks volumes about their character and their generosity.
Two items hold particular places of honour at the train. First, the Canadian flag that flies proudly everyday. Second, a letter from a CSC inmate at Dorchester Penitentiary. The letter came with a pair of glasses and a request that Dr. Marcantonio donate them to someone who needed them in the Philippines. That letter is proudly framed on the train wall.
“It doesn't matter where people come from, what their experiences are or even what they have, most of us, if given the chance, are willing to work together to make this world a better place,” Dr. Marcantonio says.