Nonprofit Offers Newfound Vision

March 26, 2010

George Whitelaw opened an office in the precarios of Tibás three years ago, putting himself on the front lines in the fight against poverty.

The orthopedic surgeon envisioned a permanent clinic, one that would provide consistent medical care and health education to families in the area. With the support of a team of enthusiastic doctors and philanthropists from Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States, along with a steady stream of volunteers, Whitelaw’s organization – Children Without Borders – has helped nearly 5,000 families and individuals during its young life.

Monday afternoon found their one-year-old office in Bajo Los Anonos, which falls in a crevice between Escazú and San José, alive with patients seeking eye care.

A team of five students from the College of Optometry at PacificUniversity, in the U.S. state of Oregon, pointed to shapes on the walls, held lights to children’s eyes and sifted through crates of eyeglasses to find pairs that would match their diagnoses.

“We saw prescriptions that were five or six times what I am wearing, and I’m pretty nearsighted,” said James Kundart, a professor at the university. “We saw many, many children with astigmatism, a condition that would make things blurry at the chalkboard and at their desks. Their prescriptions were more than what you’d expect for kids.”

But as Kundart and his students fight one battle in Costa Rica, another is brewing for Children Without Borders at home in Boston. Earlier this month, Whitelaw’s organization filed a preemptive lawsuit in an effort to fend off legal action by the Geneva-based Doctors Without Borders over a dispute regarding a similar name.

Doctors Without Borders, a 39-year-old organization that provides care in crisis situations from 60 offices around the world, alleges that Whitelaw’s nonprofit enterprise infringes on their copyrighted name. The two charities have been dialoguing for several months, following a request for a cease and desist order filed by Doctors Without Borders last summer.

“We regret we were not able to resolve this issue amicably and without legal intervention,” Whitelaw said in a statement. “… We will continue to offer the lifesaving medical care our patients depend upon while we pursue this matter.”

Because a Boston-based attorney has offered to defend the nonprofit group on a pro bono basis, legal proceedings won’t hinder the organization’s work in Costa Rica, Whitelaw said.

But the last few years haven’t been easy for the fledgling nonprofit.

“We had to stop fundraising due to the recession,” said Children Without Borders Executive Director Maria Rosa Velasco, who was on the ground Monday, ensuring everything would run smoothly for the optometry students. “And because we didn’t have money, we had to close for a few weeks. It obviously has an effect on the people because we can’t see them and sometimes they are left with nowhere else to go.”

But visits from groups like the students from PacificUniversity help inject new life into the organization.

In only nine hours in the six-room clinic, the students saw 127 women and children and issued eyeglasses for 50 to 60 of them.

“I think it was great to help the community as we were able to do today,” said second-year optometry student Megan Sis. “The feeling of accomplishing something so great for the people who are in need is the reason I do it. It’s for those looks that you get when they put on those glasses and they can see so much better … And I have never been so impressed with a nonprofit group’s organization. The whole experience was well-orchestrated.”

Lorena Hernández, who came with her daughter for prescriptions, also was appreciative, praising the organization for eyeglasses that are sometimes a luxury in Costa Rica.

“Kids don’t advance or they have trouble learning simply because of a problem with their vision,” she said. “Now, with this campaign, kids and their moms can see.”

For more information or to get involved, visit www.cwbfoundation.org

For a video about the work of Children Without Borders, see visit www.ticotimes.net.

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