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“Something as simple as a pair of glasses can be a life changer” – Nuria Rodríguez, volunteer.

If it weren’t for the contribution of our volunteers who, day after day, offer their time and efforts selflessly to help guarantee the visual health of the less favoured members of society, the Etnia Barcelona Outreach Project would have been impossible.

Núria Rodríguez, just 22 years old, started out helping the Etnia Barcelona Foundation while still at university. Today, a fully qualified optician/optometrist, it is she that tests the eyes of kids in need. She has worked both with our local Project, “Looking into your eyes” and our outreach projects in Senegal. We thought it was time to hear her talk about her own experience volunteering at the Foundation. So, here we go:

How did you first get to hear about Etnia Barcelona Foundation?

I heard about the work of Etnia Barcelona Foundation through the uni. Students get thousands of emails from the university every day, but one day I got one from the Manager of the University Visual Centre that particularly caught my eye. It was about the outreach programme and said they needed volunteers to help with screening the sight of boys and girls and, without giving it a second thought, I signed up.

What made you want to help, to volunteer?

I’ve always believed that volunteering in any way is a form of giving back to society, one which also lets you test your own abilities, to give of your knowledge. I thought that by helping with their outreach project it would be a good way for me to put the things I was learning at university into practice, and particularly gratifying since, by doing that, I would also be helping others. Taking part in this kind of project makes you feel useful. You get to see how what you do can help change the lives of others. What greater joy than to apply what you’re learning, use it to help others, to improve their quality of life.

I just went along one day to try it, but then couldn’t keep away! I worked with different outreach projects. Not only was it a great experience for me, but also a fun way to extend my learning! On average we would see some 90 kids on each project, a huge diversity of cases from which to learn.

After working with different “Looking into your eyes” outreach projects here in Catalonia as a student, Viladecans City Hall and the Etnia Barcelona Foundation invited me to take part in the expedition they were running to Senegal, this time as a fully qualified optician/optometrist and, again without a second thought, I went for it.

Volunteering has really always proved positive for me, be it with the “Looking into your eyes” project or my volunteer work in Senegal. It’s a way to connect with society, to see how things could be better, how there is always room for improvement.

What stands out most from the whole experience? Any case in particular?

For a start, whenever you deal with boys and girls, each case is always really special. On the “Looking into your eyes” projects, you see a bit of everything: from boys who have some sort of problem with their eyesight but don’t want to wear glasses or, vice versa, kids who want to wear glasses because their friends do, but have nothing wrong with their eyesight.

What I would take home from the many, many cases I’ve seen is how easy it is to get them to have their eyes tested and how appreciative they are afterwards, because they understand perfectly well what it is we are doing here: to help them and improve their eyesight and thus, also, their quality of life. As a student, I was taken aback to discover the number of kids who had never had their eyes tested, and even more so by those who needed glasses and didn’t even know it.

As far as my experience in Senegal goes, I was surprised by the friendliness and warmth with which we were received. People who, while owning nothing themselves, would give you their all without expecting anything in return. Even though most people wanted to get their eyes tested, it was a little more difficult with the kids. Not being able to speak to them in their language directly made it even harder. However, they were cooperative, although some of them looked frightened at doing something they’d never done before. Without a doubt, the most satisfying part of this kind of outreach work is when you get them glasses made up with the right prescription. Their faces light up, they change completely, it’s as if they’d discovered a new world.

If I had to mention any one particular case, it would be the case of a Senegalese family that really made a mark on: All three children had high hypermetropia. It turned out to be caused by a fairly unusual gene defect, one which is a little more common in African lands. The first year the eldest brother was tested and found to have a hypermetropia prescription of 12 dioptres. The next year his sisters were tested and found to have 10 and 8 dioptres of hypermetropia, respectively. The three siblings were asymptomatic: they had slight difficulty doing things close up, but hadn’t realised what the problem was nor that it could be corrected and that we could provide them with glasses. The glasses made all the difference, things really changed for them. When you hear them speaking about it, you realise just how something as “simple” as a pair of glasses can be so totally life changing.