Feifke, a South African native, has lived in the United States for 22 years. He has built up a successful optometry practice in Burlington and lives in neighboring Lexington. A decade ago, he wanted to give something back.
As he prepared to run his first of seven Boston Marathons in 2001, he began raising money for missions by teams of optometrists to Central America and elsewhere to offer free eye care -- and to give instant vision to many patients who have been legally blind all their lives.
With his seventh Boston Marathon on Monday, Feifke hopes to pass the $25,000 mark in his fundraising for the New England chapter of VOSH -- or Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity. The New England branch, known as VOSH-ONE, is among 33 chapters worldwide. (Disclosure: Derek is my optometrist.)
Feifke, who turns 51 next month, does more than raise money. He has taken part in seven missions since 2001 offering volunteer eye clinics in remote villages in Nicaragua and Guatemala -- sometimes traveling by canoe to reach the most isolated communities, where many people have never seen any eye care provider.
"So many people who are legally blind just need glasses," Feifke says, resulting from problems such as extreme myopia and hyperopia. "They
just want to be able to read their Bibles, or mend their fishing nets so they
can provide for their family."
He described one life-changing moment:
"A 54-year-old gentleman came in who said he was told his whole life that he was blind. He was a minus-13. Wherever he went, he was told nothing could be done. He was told he was too stupid to go to school."
We put these glasses on his face, and to see the emotion when he could suddenly see was unbelievable. Tears started coming out of his eyes. His grandson was with him, and he started crying too. It was like a miracle."
The New England teams typically travel with several optometrists and several more support staffers on these missions, once or twice a year. They work with community groups to spread the word in advance, and they treat 1,000 to 1,500 patients per mission. "We start working at the crack of dawn and work til we’re done," Feifke says. Each day they move to a new temporary clinic location.
One special pleasure has been taking his three boys with him. Steven, 18, Benjamin, 17, and Gideon, 13, have all made trips. "It makes a remarkable experience for me each year that much more special."
VOSH International dates to 1972, when an optometrist in Kansas City began collecting discarded glasses for people in the Third World, and its 80 to 90 one- to two-week missions each year treat more than 100,000 people annually around the world. The New England branch is purely a volunteer organization, so the money all goes to the missions and to support projects as far afield as Afghanistan. Feifke is a past president. The current head is Dr. Lee Lerner, who has a practice in Waltham.
Feifke, who grew up in Johannesburg, has run 13 marathons in all, and qualified for Boston with a time of 3 hours, 25 minutes, his best ever in a marathon. He hopes for a sub 3:45 run on Monday, and says, "If I can keep it under four hours for the next few years, I’ll
The most dreaded tragedy for an immigrant, and especially for an illegal immigrant, is to die young, far from home.
In the Sunday Globe, immigration writer, Maria Sacchetti, tells the story of the pain and hardship that followed one such death.
Sacchetti tells a powerful, vivid tale of Fredy Zepeda's determined life and his death in a hit-and-run accident in Brighton. She traveled to Guatemala for the funeral, and brings alive the final chapter of his story that would otherwise have gone untold and ignored.
The cost of getting Zepeda's body home -- $7,000 -- was more than it cost him to get a smuggler to bring him into the United States in 2000. It took three funeral homes, and massive amounts of paperwork. But it mattered that much to the family in Guatemala that he had supported for years. They will be paying off the funeral debt for a long time to come.
The anguish of bringing bodies back home is a common story for immigrants throughout the United States, particularly those from Latin America where religious traditions remain strong, and a proper burial matters deeply. For poor families, the burden can far outweigh the value of the money the immigrant might have earned and sent home over the years.
Cambridge activist David Grosser had worked for this day for more than two decades. And when it finally came – when the left-wing FMLN party won the presidency in El Salvador on Sunday – “it was one of the sweetest days of my life,” Grosser said.
Grosser is one of five Boston-area members who traveled to El Salvador to support the FMLN and help it guard against election tricks that might deny it victory, despite a big lead in opinion polls. The ruling right-wing party, ARENA, had won every presidential election since it was formed in 1982. Backed by the United States, the ARENA government battled the FMLN guerrillas in a 12-year civil war that claimed more than 70,000 lives until a peace treaty in 1992.
But this time, Mauricio Funes, the FMLN candidate, defeated ARENA's candidate, Rodrigo Avila, by just a couple of percentage points, in what international analysts widely described as a relatively clean election.
|President-elect Mauricio Funes|
In a telephone interview from the capital, San Salvador, Grosser said the change in US policy toward El Salvador since President Obama's election played a key role in the outcome. Grosser said CISPES had joined in calls for the United States to make a clear declaration of neutrality, and to break from the Bush Administration's open support for the right-wing governing party.
Before the vote, a group of Republicans in Congress said an FMLN victory should prompt restrictions on remittances from the United States; Democrats responded with a letter demanding US neutrality. Indeed, the US embassy and the State Department made public declarations of neutrality in the days before Sunday's vote.
"Basically, the system is structured so that the capacity to commit large-scale fraud only resides with ARENA," Grosser said. "So a level playing field allowed the Salvadoran people to make their choice clearly and without fear."
Grosser, 55, has worked with CISPES since he helped Cambridge establish sister-city ties in 1986 with San Jose las Flores in the Chalatenango District of northern El Salvador, one of the hardest-hit in the civil war and an FMLN stronghold. CISPES was the target of lengthy Reagan Administration surveillance and allegations of inappropriate involvement with a foreign "terrorist organization," which were later dropped without any action against the group.
Grosser had thought the FMLN's victory would come in the previous election in 2004.
"I was here then and I was bitterly disappointed, and infuriated by the role our government played, intimidating voters, threatening to retaliate economically. That was not the only reason why they held onto power, but it was significant."
He said CISPES would reexamine its own role now that the FMLN will hold the presidency for the next five years -- the latest in a series of left-wing parties to win power in elections in Latin America. The Salvadoran National Assembly will still be controlled by right-wing parties, so Funes will need to compromise to get legislation adopted, and to cope with terrible problems of gang violence and drug trafficking.
"We’re certainly hopeful that the kind of positive outreach that the Obama administration has shown will continue, and we won’t have to be as vigilant against our own government as we did under Bush," Grosser said. But he added: "We do not expect the right here to give up."
' We expect the kind of social reconstruction that the FMLN will carry out will be extremely inspiring. I don’t think the FMLN is really interested in provoking conflict where it doesn’t exist. They are extremely pragmatic. They know that they face a lot of difficulties with a bankrupt state apparatus thanks to the outgoing administration, and with the world economy teetering on the brink. So they are treading somewhat cautiously."
About this blog
About James F. SmithJim Smith came home to his native Boston in 2002 to become the Boston Globe's foreign editor after spending 22 years abroad. He was previously based in Buenos Aires and Mexico City for the LA Times, and in Johannesburg, Tokyo and The Hague for the AP. In 2007 he became the Globe's national political editor, coordinating presidential campaign coverage. He is a Yale graduate, and has an MBA. He is married to Maxine Hart and has two sons, Matthew and Daniel.
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