Project focuses on aid for Africans in dire need of glasses

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Geoffrey Ballantine’s torchlight fills the teenage girl’s eyes, sweeping from one side to the other with precision.

She sits anxiously but patiently as the examination continues. Both she and Geoffrey know how much is at stake.

For this is no ordinary opticians. The girl involved has never even had an eye test before and her sight has become so poor she’s been forced to give up her precious place at school. With her school place goes the hope that she can escape the poverty that has blighted her family’s life in rural Burkina Faso, in west Africa.

After the check-up, she nervously awaits his verdict – can her sight be saved?

The East Lothian optometrist assures her all she needs is a pair of spectacles – they are free and will allow her to continue her education.

“Like so many schoolchildren, she received a note to say she wouldn’t be able to continue because her eyesight had deteriorated to the extent she couldn’t see the blackboard,” says Geoffrey, speaking at his home in Gullane. “None of the recycled ones we had was the right prescription, so we had some made up, paid for them ourselves, and that enabled her to go back to school.

“It’s really quite humbling, and her fortunes would have been so different had she not been able to return to school.”

That girl is just one of 13 million children who are unnecessarily impaired simply because they do not have a pair of spectacles.

Committed eye experts such as Geoffrey and his team have dedicated themselves to reducing that number with projects across seven of the worst-affected countries in Africa.

The 59-year-old and his family are no strangers to the field.

As the great, great grandson of the pioneering Scots optometrist John Lizars, Geoffrey was managing director of Black and Lizars, Scotland’s largest independently-owned opticians.

The firm has been trading for 175 years, and was established by Mr Lizars, a senior operating surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, He went on to stun the medical world when he published an early exposé, warning of the dangers of tobacco in 1856.

Geoffrey says he was determined to return to the continent where he worked after his graduation, and parted company with the firm after 37 years. He now devotes his time to establishing eye care centres for Vision Aid Overseas.

Although he enjoyed running his family’s firm, he said he relishes the new challenges at the charity.

“Lizars was my family business, and where I spent much of my career, but in 2007 one of the shareholders reached 65 and wanted to retire” he says.

“We decided to sell the business since none of our children wanted to go into this field.

“It suited me because I really wanted to spend some time doing work with Vision Aid Overseas.”

Geoffrey set up his own practice Ballantine Goldie, in Edinburgh’s Davidson’s Mains and another in Gullane with former colleague Tracy Goldie in September 2010, and found more time to do charity work.

“I’d worked in Rhodesia in 1975 and Kenya in 1979-80, and while that was for a commercial opticians I enjoyed the work and wanted to go back to do work on the charity front.

“I did a training weekend overseas on what to expect in remote areas, my name went on a list of volunteers and I was asked to join the project in Burkina Faso in January 2010 for a fortnight. I loved it.”

The charity uses recycled spectacles handed to stores like Ballantine Goldie.

The frames are fitted with new lenses or recycled, with the income from the materials paying for glasses to be bought from China.

Along with children who have never been to an opticians, older patients with failing eyesight account for a large proportion of those the charity treats.

Geoffrey came across one memorable patient during his first tour of Burkina Faso.

“I had one chap who had the cataract operations but couldn’t see”, he explains. “He must have been very long sighted before that because he required extremely strong plus-16 lenses and I couldn’t find them anywhere. We scrambled through box after box, and eventually came up with this pair of plus-16 but in a Dame Edna Everage frame, and put them on him.

“He was just so happy, he was hugging everyone, it was the first time he had seen properly in 15 years, and he didn’t give two hoots what he looked like.”

Although Geoffrey signed up to work at camps on the ground, the charity’s trustees heard about his experience and drew up a blueprint from which Vision Aid Overseas now establishes clinics.

Two centres have already been established in Ethiopia and Zambia with more on the way.

The optometrists who volunteer with Vision Aid Overseas are not trained ophthalmologists, but often spot the signs of conditions that will require surgery. In some cases they work with fellow charities to ensure their patients receive treatment.

“More recently I was in Zambia this September and the third patient I looked at she had advanced glaucoma” says Geoffrey.

“We were able to get her seen by a nurse and have her prescribe eye drops to at least arrest the development. If she hadn’t come in, she would have been blind within three or four years, and it would have been permanent.”

Vision Aid Overseas says one of the biggest impacts the lack of basic spectacles can have is on adult men and women who are forced to give up their jobs because they cannot see well enough to read and write or continue in a skilled trade. The loss of earnings can be devastating for whole families.

Despite the scale of the work planned by the organisation, members like Geoffrey, now a board trustee, said the reward is clear. “I love it, is the short answer” he said. “Many of those we see can’t lead an independent life just because they have no access to a pair of glasses. To give that back to someone is the real reward for us.”

SHARP VISION

VISION Aid Overseas is an international, non-governmental organisation aiming to transform access to eyecare in the developing world.

The UK-based charity re-uses unwanted pairs of spectacles to make new glasses for people in the poorest parts of Africa, who account for a large number of the 670 million worldwide who are unnecessarily visually impaired.

In countries such as Ethiopia and Zambia, where the organisation has established centres, it charges around £3 to £8 for those who can afford it, and provides free glasses for those who cannot.

It costs as little as £25,000 to set up a vision centre, and local people are trained to work on the project.

Ballantine Goldie – based at Main Street, Davidson’s Mains and Lammerview Terrace, Gullane, East Lothian – is among the firms in the Lothians which receive unwanted spectacles.

Vision Aid Overseas also operates a courier service to collect spectacles – http://www.vao.org.uk.