“I Was Blind, Now I See”: Church Relief Work Changes Lives in South America
Contributed By Tad Walch, Deseret News staff writer
- LDS Charities aids South American communities with surgical equipment, wheelchairs, neonatal training, and new schools through donations to the humanitarian fund.
“The humanitarian offerings made by the members of the Church around the world are directed in a very important way, a very organized way to see that we are indeed caring for the poor and needy around the world.” —Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
Through a state-of-the-art microscope provided by the Church, a surgeon gazed steadily at a cloudy cataract threatening an impoverished woman’s eyesight in October during President Russell M. Nelson’s visit to Paraguay.
Cautiously, Dr. Miguel Scalamogna began to make skillful, tiny, meticulous incisions in her eye. One floor below a loud throng of Paraguayans filled the lobby and hallway of Fundación Visión, one of the Church’s charitable partners. Many of the people were working their way through the process of applying for a $7 eye exam they could not afford.
Others were somewhere on a journey from that exam to the quiet operating room upstairs and the microscope provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that plays a vital role in about half of all cataract surgeries in this nation of 6.9 million people.
“There’s no room for error,” President Nelson, himself a retired, world-renowned heart surgeon, said when told about the procedure. “The doctor must be very precise.”
Scalamogna broke up the woman’s cloudy lens, painstakingly removed the pieces from her eye, and placed an artificial lens in its place behind her iris and pupil.
As he cauterized the incisions, wisps of smoke rose above the woman’s face. To the surgeon’s right, another doctor began the same procedure on an older man. He peered through a second Zeiss microscope, one of several “machines provided by the Mormons,” Jorge Medina, a registered nurse, said in Spanish.
“Without them, we cannot perform this surgery,” he said.
Outside, the building’s cornerstone bore an inscription: “I was blind, now I see.”
Partners in aid
The impact of LDS Charities on millions of lives beyond the Church itself is evident in some of the South American countries that President Nelson visited in October. For example, the Church’s humanitarian arm has helped 4.6 million people in Peru since 1985, according to statistics provided by the Church, which now has 593,854 members in the country.
In Paraguay, LDS Charities has helped 167,781 people with a broad range of services since 1985, again far outstripping the number of members it has in the country, which was 93,773 as of March 31.
Thousands of those the Church has reached there have been through Fundación Visión, which the Church began to support in 2007 with a donation of $250,000. The charity’s fundraising chief will never forget it.
“It was the biggest check I’ve ever had in my purse,” Helmine Funk said.
And absolutely necessary for a group intent on performing demanding surgeries on the transparent structure of the eye lens, said Jason Penniecook, an ophthalmologist and the foundation’s academic coordinator.
“If you want to be a healthcare provider, the barrier you have to cross that helps you help people is expensive equipment.”
For a country with a desperate need for eye surgeries, the need included Zeiss microscopes, a machine to sterilize the surgical equipment, and other items necessary for specialized exams.
“You need precise instruments,” Penniecook said. “A surgeon has to take things four microns thick and move them 1 millimeter without having things break up. That requires very precise movements. The equipment must be very precise, and it’s very expensive.”
Cataracts are the main cause of blindness. With the right equipment, removing them and replacing them with an artificial lens is a simple outpatient procedure that lasts 15 to 45 minutes.
Fundación Visión’s partnership with the Church has allowed it to become the leading eye-surgery provider in Paraguay while helping thousands who financially cannot afford other options. People begin to arrive between 4 and 5 a.m. on most mornings. The clinic sees between 300 and 400 people a day. The facility performs between half to 75 percent of all corneal transplants in Paraguay each year, Penniecook said, about half of all cataract surgeries, and a significant percentage of retinal procedures. In all, its doctors perform 6,500 eye surgeries in a year.
The principle behind the Church’s aid in South America and around the world is a divine appointment to care for the poor and needy, said Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
“It includes everyone, all of [Heavenly Father’s] children,” he said. “So we have a very sophisticated organization to do that. There are humanitarian platforms that are very important. … We do great good, and the humanitarian offerings made by the members of the Church around the world are directed in a very important way, a very organized way to see that we are indeed caring for the poor and needy around the world.”
Scores of babies died preventable deaths in Peru at the dawn of the 21st century. That’s when a young doctor in Lima signed up for neonatal resuscitation training provided by LDS Charities.
Tania Paredes was bright, professional, and conscientious. It hurt to watch 18 of every 1,000 children die at or near birth. The training lit a spark in her.
Since 2000, Paredes has worked tirelessly to help her country’s infant mortality rate improve from 18 per 1,000 to 10 per 1,000 last year. In Lima, the rate is down to eight per 1,000. She said the neonatal training that has saved thousands of babies would not exist in Peru without LDS Charities and the Church, which has trained 100 doctors a year since 2006 and which leaves behind the equipment it brings to each session. Doctors and nurses use the equipment to pass on their training to others, another 500 doctors since 2000.
“This training has filled a gap here,” Paredes said. “It’s a seed that will continue to grow.”
In 2016, the Church added new training to help mothers survive childbirth, focused especially on hemorrhaging. The more women are educated about childbirth in Peru, the lower their mortality rate in childbirth. Teenage mothers are at the highest risk, Paredes said. Maternal deaths have fallen almost by half.
Partners like Paredes and Fundación Visión are required in the Church’s humanitarian work. LDS Charities seeks organizations or individuals who can act as partners on every project, said Alexander Principe, welfare specialist for the South America Northwest Area.
For example, 95 percent of the wheelchairs distributed in Peru by the Institute of National Rehabilitation come from LDS Charities, including one given to Jorge Luis Robles, 50, soon before President Nelson’s visit last October. Robles, a grains analyst, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke while working on his green pepper farm three months ago.
In Paraguay, LDS Charities has provided 5,800 wheelchairs since 2013 through an eight-year-old partnership with Fundación Solidaridad. The foundation distributes about two-thirds of all the wheelchairs in Paraguay.
“If we didn’t have the Church’s help, thousands of people would be without wheelchairs every year,” said Oscar Corbo, the foundation’s wheelchair coordinator.
The Church’s efforts go well beyond vision, neonatal and maternal care, and wheelchairs. For example, the day before President Nelson arrived in Lima, Peru, Church humanitarian missionaries presented 1,150 canes and 1,150 braille readers from LDS Charities to the National Federation of Disabled People. The foundation’s president, who is blind, said he was “profoundly grateful.”
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been working for years in Peru helping people who are disabled,” Julio Guzman added.
The Church’s true primary welfare focus in Peru is on education for children ages 3 to 8, said Principe, the area welfare specialist.
That focus on education centered on a tiny plot at the top of 155 stairs carved into a hillside in a tiny spot in an impoverished section of Lima as President Nelson visited. There, little children danced, sang the national anthem, and shouted, “Viva Peru!” during an emotional ceremony at their preschool built with materials provided by the Church.
Just a few months earlier, their parents and teachers condemned their ramshackle building. The Heart of Jesus Preschool was closed for good, they thought, a harsh end for neighborhood children ages 3 to 5. But those children and their parents soon had reason for the celebration in and around three small, prefabricated buildings provided by the Church that allowed the school to reopen.
“We couldn’t have done it without the Church’s help because there isn’t enough money here,” said Jenny Velasquez, the head teacher. “The families could not have funded it themselves.”
Some of the parents carried the prefabricated wooden walls up all those stairs themselves. The buildings, with corrugated roofs, allowed the school to double in size from 20 to 40. The relative scale of the project was small, but the impact in an economically challenged area was large. The children celebrated by singing, “If you have the faith of a mustard seed.”
“I’m very emotional,” said a local shop owner, Hilda Pacheco. “We’re grateful for the help you’re giving our children. Thank you very much.”
Asked later about the gratitude of South Americans for the Church’s aid, President Nelson redirected the credit.
“Let’s give the credit where it belongs,” he said. “When there’s a cyclone, a hurricane, or an earthquake … what do the Saints do? They put money into the humanitarian fund. We never appeal for it. As the need goes up, the voluntary contributions follow the same curve, without our even asking. So the credit goes to the people, the members of the Church who just feel this confidence that if they donate to the humanitarian fund, it will be sent right where it needs to go.”
Students sit at a donated table at Heart of Jesus preschool in Lima, Peru on Friday, October 19, 2018. LDS Charities donated three prefab classrooms, tables and chairs, and other school supplies. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.
Students perform during a program at Heart of Jesus preschool in Lima, Peru, on Friday, October 19, 2018. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.
Housing lines the hillside in Lima, Peru, on Friday, October 19, 2018. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.