Sunday, 7 August 2016

Building The Team

When I first accepted this project, I had specific goals of what kind fo team I had hoped to take with me. Cathy Reid, who has been the main connection with the Malawian communities supported by New St James Church and has been to the area 5 time would be the head of our group. There would only be about 10 people allowed to go as our accommodations and transportation in Malawi was limited. 6 of those positions would be people from out of the congregation and then with me, I could have 3 other eye care professionals join us. Ideally, I had hoped for 1 Optometrist and 2 more Opticians and also, to get them from different areas of Ontario and Canada( if possible). Bryan Todd of Sudbury, ON joined the group and the 2 of us worked on recruiting the other half of our team. It was a lot of phone calls, persuading, emails, following leads. It was a tough pitch, asking people for 3 weeks of time, to cover about $4000 of personal expenses, to commit to fund-raising and gathering of donations, to going into primitive conditions with complete strangers. There were several voice on interest, several disappointed rejections and some "Are you crazy?" and in the end, it was just going to be Bryan and I as the experience trained professionals on the team.
Even the other spots from the congregation didn't all get filled with one person having to drop out just 8 weeks before we left due to some personal situations. But who we do have are a committed group of 6 who have been meeting through Skype and emails and dinner meetings for the last year.

Before we jumped in and spend 3 weeks 24/7 together we needed to spend a stretch of time figuring each other out. Also, we have 4 people who have never work with glasses before Cathy, Karen, Jess and Sara so they needed some training so that they can support Bryan and me.
A few months ago we all agree that we would have a practice clinic on a Saturday before we left, to train everyone, to test out the equipment that had been donated, to let Bryan and I practice with the new auto-refractors, to get to know each other and to organize our packing and donations.
Saturday, August 6 would be that day. We put out a call to our congregation to come and be our guinea pigs. I also posted it on Facebook calling my friends and family to come and help. 
The week leading up to the event was busy. Last minute details, making sure donations arrives. Paul Fabish and the team at Plastics Plus came through for us once again, even though they were in one of their busiest times, made sure they completed the last 300 glasses we needed. 
Deborah Perry, a wonderful Optician and a dear friend from Saskatoon, SK send another box of stunninly beautiful glasses and almost $300 in cash to support us.
Frank Suen and the gang at the Frame Barn rushed to get our tools and supplies shipped to us.
Peggy and Christina, 2 Opticians who had really wanted to be a part of the team but couldn't due to life situations said that they would gladly come and help. 
For Peggy, it meant dragging her husband out and giving up 2 days on a busy summer weekend.
Christina drove 6hrs each way from North Bay just to come and help our team pull it together. I am truly grateful for their kindness and generousity.
Both Bryan and I are a little sad they aren't flying out with us in a few weeks but know that in the future, we will be on a team with these delightful women.
Our work started Friday night when Bryan, myself, Cathy, Karen, Peggy and Tad sorted almost 2000 pairs of glasses into ziplock bags, organizing them by RX powers.

It took about 2hrs in 30 degree heat which was great to get us ready for the conditions we would be working in. We departed to get a good night's rest before a long day.
Saturday morning at 8am we were at the church and setting up. Although we had use of the whole gym, we decided to limit our space to a small 10X10 corner which was more like the largest area we would probably have when on site in Malawi. Deb, a lady from our church, dropped by to wish us luck and leave a container of fresh made chocolate chip cookies to get us through the day. Bryan asked if there was any way she could come to Malawi with us!

We all put on t-shirts supplied by the Opticians Association of Canada.

Cathy, Karen and Jess wore them with pride, like they had been welcomed to a new secret club. Several people commented on how amazing the shirts were and we are grateful to OAC for this donation and proud to do this project representing Licensed Opticians.
We had posted and told people that we would be running from 9am-12pm but sure enough my friend, Evan came early. I laugh and said,"He's just trying to prepare us as there will be people lined up and waiting for us when we go." We were ready to go at 9am sharp and we threw open the doors and welcomed the community. I was so grateful that so many people came to let us practice with them. From our congregation, my friends and family, people that I work with, their kids and friends.
We weren't running smoothly at first and had details to work out, the equipment needed some fine tuning, but they were patient,pleasant let us experiment and generous with donations as high as $200 being dropped off.
By the end of the clinic time, we felt good about what we had done. We felt prepared for what we needed to do and Cathy, Karen and Jess knew more about glasses than they had ever know.
We took a break and shared lunch together. In Malawi, we will be cooking most of our meals together with ingredients from local markets. I specifically chose to have a lunch that we needed to put together ourselves. Nothing fancy, buns, cold cuts, cheese, chips but things that got us working together and making decisions.
As we sat down I looked around and realized it might be the best and fanciest meal we do as a team.
After lunch, some real work began. We haulled all the donated goods and products down to the gym with the suitcases to get packed. We are allowed 2 large suitcases each at 23kg. If it is over it can be up to 32kg for $100 extra. If we take more than 2 suitcases, each additional one is 23kg at $242. SO our best use of donations is to pack the 12 suitcases( 2 X 6 team members) to the max 32kg first. Each of us have agreed to only use 1/2 a suitcase for personal. We also need to make sure that the most important items are in the first 12 bags. 
Glasses and Medical supplies came first. Including 2000 eye glass cases that had been had sewn over the last few months by people at our church.

But we also had school supplies, menstration kits, and beautiful dolls, blankets and poncho and soccer balls.

You may think that poncho and dolls don't seem like priorities. But understand, first people have spent HOURS of time making these things. Because of that, time and materials donated, means that these beautiful things have been put together in a cost effective way and are much more durable and beautiful than anything we could purchase in Malawi. Also, these are things that are not readily available to children in the villages of Malawi. This might be the ONLY toy they ever get. The ONLY warm piece of clothing. Even if you give them school supplies, sometimes they can't afford to use them, or never learn how, or they get sold but everyone can use a soccer ball, get comfort from hugging their doll. Hope, happiness and kindness are necessities.
And so we selected the best and biggest bags that we had been given and expanded them as much as we could and packed and stuffed every knook.

Bryan and Christina thought I was crazy. "Don't be ridiculous. I can still squish this corner, give me something else to put in." Bryan was worried about every zipper as I pulled and kneed it closed. Christina wants me to pack for every camping trip she goes on!
Peggy worked to finish labeling the last of the glasses.

And as every bag closed we weighed to make sure we got to the max weight for our money.
We worked in the heat much like we would in Malawi, without much complaint and with wonderful teasing and co-operation.

By 5pm we were ready for dinner and we sat down to discuss final details of what needed to be done in the next 3 weeks. What did we need for money? What currencies? How would we spend our 12hr layover in London, UK? Laughing, joking, teasing and preparing.
Rev Andrew Reid, the pastor at New St James was amazed. As he said later, you would never have know that these people had never met each other before. 24 hrs later they were friends and colleagues-a team.
I feel really good about all that happened this weekend. I am eternally thankful for all the donors who rushed to meet this deadline. I am truly grateful for eveyone who gave up their time to let us train and come together as a team. We are ready to serve the communities in Malawi.

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