Couple take gift of sight to Vanuatu

AFTER 15 years coordinating the Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness Project Don and Meg MacRaild have a lot of amazing stories.

It is only possible to scratch the surface of the good work that has seen them named Order of Australia Medalists this Australia Day.

According to the couple, it all started in 1994, though the project would not officially be recognised until 2000, when they travelled to Vanuatu to teach children English and home economics skills.

While there, Don and Meg met the paramount chief of Vanuatu – a man in his 70s who was, essentially, regarded at the king of Vanuatu’s 83 islands.

After they had returned to Australia, Don received a letter from the chief, requesting a pair of glasses.

“In sending me this letter, it showed me here was a man that, not only didn’t understand how you got glasses, didn’t understand there was no possibility of getting glasses within his environment,” Don said.

Meg explained that Vanuatu was a very poor and isolated country, cut off from health care and normal education possibilities, with little to no phone access.

She said the chief had no concept that you needed to take tests or have money to buy these kinds of things.

Considering it an interesting optometry story, Don told Maffra optometrist John Cronin of the chief’s odd request.

Don said Dr Cronin asked him to pay him a visit three months before returning to Vanuatu, something Don and Meg didn’t yet have plans to do.

When the couple did decide to return to the country, they did as requested with Dr Cronin starting a collection of, what turned out to be, 500 pairs of second hand glasses.

Dr Cronin also, according to Don, taught them basic eye tests which they were able to use in Vanuatu.

However things didn’t go so swimmingly on their return, according to Don.

He said the driving itinerary he planned before flying out ran into a few bumps when it was pointed out the road he was intending to drive on was, in fact, a walking track.

He said roads in Vanuatu were scarce, with the nearest road five hours away for people living in the remotest areas.

Yet one of the biggest challenges the MacRailds had to face was testing people who were unable to read.

“People who can’t read will accept a pair of glasses because they think it will teach them to read,” he said, explaining how novel the concept of glasses was.

He said one man the couple treated only used his glasses sparingly because he didn’t want to wear them out.

When back in Australia Don was asked to address the Sale Central Rotary Club about the couple’s experience.

It became so enthralled with the project that it immediately placed an advertisement for a volunteer optometrist to accompany the MacRailds on their next trip.

From hundreds of applications the group made a shortlist of candidates, calling the top three in for interviews.

So impressed were they by the candidates they arranged to send all three, even though they had only planned on sending one.

Even though it was only meant to be a once off visit, the program continues today.

The MacRailds intended to return to volunteering at the school, once a coordinator had been found to replace them, yet, due to the strong networks they had cultivated within the community, they were asked to stay on.

Despite their fantastic work restoring sight to the people of Vanuatu the MacRailds still hold onto hope of returning to work at the school, citing early literacy as their biggest concern for the country.

“The people of Vanuatu see the need to develop literacy skills as, probably, their greatest single national need, because they’ve got to have an educated population and they haven’t got that at the moment,” Don said.

“You are only getting 60 per cent of the people getting any primary education,” he added.

Don said the couple found the Australia Day honour a little embarrassing, as they maintain it is the optometrists, doctors and other volunteers who do the real work.

“I just coordinate things,” Don said.