A member of St. Peter parish in Jefferson City offers the following account of the visits he has made to Merida, Mexico, with the Jefferson City-based Merida Foundation:
Jefferson City resident and optician Dorothy Lemke first visited Merida, Mexico, in the spring of 1973.
She accompanied her husband to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula so he could pursue his interest in Mayan culture and archaeology.
Dorothy wasn’t very interested in either.
One day while wandering around a village, she noticed a man sitting in the shade on the side of the street, his head down on his knees, which he held to his chest.
“What a lazy bum,” she thought to herself. “Why isn’t he at work?”
Just then, he raised his head and she saw that he was blind.
Her evaluation of him instantly went from that of disdain to one of pity.
This encounter continued to haunt her after she returned home. She was in the business of helping people see better; surely there was something she could do to help the poor Mexican villagers.
Dorothy’s upbringing taught her never to waste anything, so she had a box of 169 pairs of used eyeglasses that her clients had left at her office when they got a new prescription.
On her next trip to Mexico, those glasses went with her, and while her husband was at the Mayan ruins, Dorothy was in the village fitting folks with a free pair of glasses.
“After I ran out of glasses, there was still a mass of people looking sadly back at me,” she said. “I still can’t forget that look. It just intensified this burning inside of me.”
Every year for the next 40-plus years, Dorothy has taken eyeglasses to the people in 80 of the villages surrounding Merida — often making two or three trips in a year.
Each time, she provides a free gift of improved vision to 1,000 or so people in need.
In December of 2003, the Merida Foundation was founded by Dorothy and Rudy Lemke to help continue their mission of giving out eyeglasses and also providing a nutritious meal each school day to hundreds of children in some of those villages.
Once was blind
I first heard of the Merida Foundation in the fall of 2007 when Dorothy came and talked to our church group.
I was moved by her story and I knew how much I depended on my own nonprescription reading glasses.
I was hooked. A year later, I made my first trip to Merida with Dorothy and Rudy.
We visit villages within about a 50-mile radius from Merida. Almost every village has a municipal building in the middle of town with a covered veranda. That is usually where the police station is, too.
We stop and tell the authorities what we are doing, and within a few minutes they provide us with a table and some chairs, and a line of people will appear from out of nowhere.
The line will be there as long as we are.
Frequently, we will return to the same village two or three days in a row if the demand is great and we have the glasses.
Read all about it
Over the years, Dorothy developed a simple system to determine what glasses someone needs just by using a newspaper.
She first asks if they need glasses to read or for distance or both. If they want reading glasses, she makes a guess of what strength of glasses they might need based on their age and the looks of their eyes and tries a pair on and hands them the paper.
Then it’s a process of elimination by asking which pair is better as different prescriptions are tried.
The same trial-and-error method is used for distance by having them look at something across the street.
Many Mayan women sew and need the glasses to better see their needlework. Most people are very appreciative of receiving a free pair of glasses.
Even though the days can be long and hot, we have fun. Sometimes I use a pair of glasses without any lenses to put on people whom I just can’t figure out what glasses they need. This gives everyone in line a good laugh and gives me a chance to refocus and find them the right pair.
Eye has not seen
The most rewarding times for me is when we can give a school kid a pair of glasses that enables them to read or clearly see to the front of the classroom.
Once, on our last day in a village, we were almost out of glasses and we were searching for a low power pair for a 9 or 10-year-old girl.
We couldn’t find anything close to what she required. Then I remembered a spare pair that I kept in my backpack. They were just what she needed.
I traded her a hug for a pair of glasses, and the memory of that exchange still warms my heart.
Dorothy planted the seed and I am privileged to help reap her harvest.
She saw a need and took it upon herself to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit to be God’s hands and feet and to show His love to His children by the gift of improved vision.
To find out more about the Merida Foundation visit our website at: www.meridafoundation.org.
This article was originally published in Keys to the Kingdom, St. Peter parish’s quarterly newsletter, and is republished here with permission.