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Winter 2021

VOSH AND ICO

WRITTEN BY:

Sheila Quirke

A Cycle of Service and Sustainability

Alexander Pitts, OD ’23, was an undergrad when he traveled overseas to attend a United Nations hosted conference on sustainable development in Vienna, Austria. A junior at the time, studying biology and global health at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Pitts felt that unmistakable click of a career path falling into place while attending the conference, “I’ve always known I wanted to help people, but it was crazy to see collaboration on that global scale. It stuck with me.” 

Fast forward a couple of years and Pitts was a first-year student at ICO when he learned about SVOSH (pronounced S-VOSH), the student branch of Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH). He signed on and is currently serving as the president of the ICO SVOSH chapter under the faculty advisement of Tracy Matchinski, OD ’95, former president of VOSH/ International (2017-2019). Both student and teacher are passionate about their efforts with the volunteer organization. Dr. Matchinski was introduced to VOSH by former ICO Dean and President, Dr. Alfred Rosenbloom. 

The cycle of service and sustainability between the two organizations is a repeating one and their ties run deep. With roots dating back to 1970, VOSH seeks to “provide the gift of vision and quality eye health to people worldwide,” as detailed in their mission statement. This is done via international trips where VOSH and SVOSH volunteers travel to create pop-up clinics as well as via local clinics, with a growing emphasis on partnering with already existing community organizations to help fulfill the mission. VOSH is well suited to support the efforts of individual chapters on both global and local scales, given this framework.
 

ICO student Pitts takes full advantage of those resources in his position as SVOSH president. After networking with a friend who is a social worker, Pitts identified a need within the Brighton Park community, a neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest side, roughly six miles from the ICO campus, which is 93% Latinx and has a per capita household income of just over $13,000. It is a community of many Spanish speaking immigrants whose access to quality insured medical/vision care has been hit hard by the COVID pandemic. 

Partnering with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), and under Pitts’ leadership and Matchinski’s guidance, ICO’s SVOSH chapter has facilitated two separate clinics hosted by BPNC. The clinics provided much needed eyecare to almost 250 neighborhood residents and have been a very welcome addition to this under-resourced community. 

Brighton Park Neighborhood Council’s Estela Diaz is grateful for the collaboration, “I was nervous about what mood the student doctors would be in, but they were so kind with a wonderful energy. Our families were afraid about language barriers, but the students tried so hard and were so respectful. I was amazed. You feel proud of the work you can do as a team.” 

 

Pitts, too, felt that sense of teamwork, “My goal with SVOSH was to get boots on the ground locally. I wanted to increase our local community service and we did that. Thirty to forty ICO students got great clinical exposure close to home, just a ten-minute drive from campus. The student volunteers got nothing but blessings and gratitude from this experience.” 

Pitts makes the point that the local clinic felt more like the VOSH sponsored international trip he took to St. Lucia in August 2021 than he would have imagined, “The scale was different, with St. Lucia helping over 2,000 patients during a week-long clinic, but the language barriers were similar. Both clinics were held in schools, both relied on local support, and the benefits for patients were the same.”
 

One thing that was unique to the St. Lucia trip for Pitts was a clinical milestone he will not soon forget, “I actually saw the entirety of my Retina I course over two days of clinics! I even diagnosed a retinal detachment, something I was seeing for the first time. It is very cool to feel the direct impact of my education at work.” 

Dr. Matchinski is a strong part of the thread that weaves between ICO and VOSH, making these clinics, both local and international, possible. “I see the lightbulbs go off for students,” she says, which is apparent in Pitts’ enthusiasm and the crossover between the two organizations. Dr. Matchinski is one of several ICO alumni who have served as president of VOSH International. In fact over half of VOSH's presidents are ICO alumni, including the newly installed president, Michael Ciszek, OD ’93. There is a parallel in the institutions, VOSH and ICO, that emphasizes the importance of leadership and providing humanitarian care.

Dr. Matchinski works to instill these values in her students at ICO, “There has been a huge evolution in the last twenty years at VOSH to partner with local eyecare providers, organizations, and health departments. VOSH is a grassroots organization, founded by optometrists, which tries to work with populations that do not have access to eyecare. We are a self-funded and neutral NGO (non-government organization), just trying to do good things. Helping all those in a community with particular attention to those who are known to be more vulnerable, including women, children, people with disabilities, and those of a different ethnic background has been an important part of VOSH’s values. We should always make an extra effort when we know we are working with a vulnerable population.”
 

SVOSH Through the Years
Puerto Vallarta 2007
Puerto Vallarta 2007

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Nicaragua 2011
Nicaragua 2011

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Brighton Park 2021
Brighton Park 2021

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Puerto Vallarta 2007
Puerto Vallarta 2007

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See highlights from ICO's SVOSH Mission Trip to Peru.

My goal with SVOSH was to get boots on the ground locally. I wanted to increase our local community service and we did that.
Alexander Pitts, OD ’23

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Michael Ciszek, OD' 93 (far left), was announced as VOSH's/International President at this year's annual meeting in October. 

1971-78     
1979-81     
1981-83    
1983-85   
1985-87  
1987-89 
1989-91 
1991-93 
1993-95 
1997-99  
2005-07 
2007-09 
2017-19 
2021-  

Franklin Harms, OD ’50 (NICO)*
Russell Dorland, OD, FVI ’50 (NICO)*
Bud Falkenhain, OD, FVI ’38 (NICO)
Stephen B. Rose, OD ’64
Thomas C. Henley, OD, FVI ’71 
Charles Gray, OD, FVI ’58 
Wayne VanderLeest, OD, FVI ’79
James J. Hess, OD ’79
Phil Freitag, OD ’49 (NICO)*
Phil Hottel, OD ’48 (NICO)
Ruth McAndrews, OD ’79
Larry Hookway, OD, MS, FVI ’82
Tracy L. Matchinski, OD, FAAO, FVI ’95
Michael Ciszek, OD ’93

ICO Alumni who have served as VOSH President

I would challenge every ICO alum to support VOSH/SVOSH and think about how you can do humanitarian work in your own community to help those around you.
Tracy Matchinski, OD ’95

Another of the values foundational to VOSH is sustainability. There is a growing emphasis within VOSH/SVOSH chapters to ensure the efforts of their volunteers will be sustainable and not just a one and done clinic experience. By identifying and working with local organizations like the ones in Brighton Park and St. Lucia and others in countries including Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico, VOSH supports efforts to strengthen education for optometry students around the world. The goal is to shore up opportunities to recruit and train optometrists in all countries and provide global educational opportunities in optometry. 

One of those educational opportunities was recently hosted by ICO on its Chicago campus where VOSH/International held its annual meeting in October 2021. The theme was “Building Resilience and Embracing Change,” which emphasized the goals of sustainability, targeting children’s vision, navigating how the COVID pandemic has increased the commitment and resolve to provide better patient care, and creating affordable, accessible resources.

Dr. Michael Ciszek was new in his role of VOSH/International President at the meeting and was grateful ICO agreed to host the event, “We held a hybrid meeting, given the ongoing nature of COVID, and Chicago seemed like a central location for anyone traveling, but more importantly, I knew ICO would be accommodating, supportive, and welcoming. We wanted to generate international attendance and needed some sophisticated IT to do that. ICO’s IT Department has known capabilities and did an excellent job with the event.” 

Many of those who attended the annual meeting virtually were international optometry students from Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. The VOSH mission of sustainability is apparent not just in its infrastructure and partnerships with local organizations, but also in its efforts to recruit and support students. It is this cycle that ensures the sustainability of both the organization and its good works. 

As Dr. Rosenbloom recruited and mentored Dr. Matchinski all those years ago, she is now mentoring Alex Pitts, who himself has said that coming to the awareness of service at this stage in his career will inform him moving forward. He wants to do the same for others as well. Pitts refers to it as “the bug” and he’s got it. 

Dr. Matchinski wants others to get that bug, too. “I would challenge every ICO alum to support VOSH/SVOSH and think about how you can do humanitarian work in your own community to help those around you. I have diagnosed and educated people locally with glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, and prescribed glasses to make it easier to work or go to school. I watched a man in Ecuador carry his 18-year-old son with cerebral palsy in his arms into the clinic for his first pair of +9.00 glasses. There was another man who walked down a mountainside in Peru to the clinic. He had never had an eye exam and could not see ten inches past his arm. He left with a -13.00 prescription and new glasses. It was relatively simple for me to help him, but life changing for him. There is a chain or domino effect that happens when you help, and it can happen wherever you are. You can donate money or retired equipment, host your own clinic, inspire students, speak to a group of seniors, or provide diabetes education via Zoom. We have knowledge that benefits others and never forget that our knowledge changes lives.” 
 

1. Join your state VOSH chapter. Look it up at vosh.org.

2. Look at VOSH/International to join a committee.

3. Donate money or equipment to your state VOSH chapter.

4. Involve SVOSH students on domestic or international clinic efforts.

Get involved!