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Manteca Rotarian trio delivers the gift of sight
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Mahlyn Leotard, of Manteca, fits a pair of prescription glasses on a young woman in the traveling Rotary eye clinic. - photo by Photos Courtesy Manteca Rotary Club

Three Manteca Rotarians – Dr. Fred Stellhorn, Mark Oliver and Jeff Liotard – have once again traveled to Honduras where they have given the gift of sight to thousands with limited vision.

Stellhorn is a Manteca optometrist. Oliver is a retired insurance man in Manteca. Liotard owns and operates Mountain Mike’s Pizza restaurant located on North Main Street and Louise Avenue.

Stellhorn flew to Roatan Island in the Caribbean some 20 miles off the cost of Honduras on July 5 where they prepared to set up clinics in a hospital, in an orphanage and in a prison as part of a Manteca Rotary Club international service project.  He had taken 4,000 pair of glasses with his team and had only 852 left when they returned to Manteca.  Some individuals would take two pair – one for reading and another for distance.

The day after arriving they hopped a plane to San Pedro Sula. There they met Oliver who had flown in the week prior. They had a van to take them down the mainland to the little town of some 15,000 inhabitants, “Gracias,” in that jungle coffee growing region.

Stellhorn’s sister Siska, an attorney from Irvine Rotary in Southern California, Liotard and his daughter Mahlyn and her boyfriend Will Harding had first congregated at the island at the Mayan Princess homestead that they used as their headquarters for the clinics. 

“We got to Gracias about 11 p.m. and arrived at their hospital the next morning,” Dr. Stellhorn recalled.  The several clinics they offered took them 17 days to complete.

He said there were no partitions or doors in the 50-bed hospital, just movable dividers.  They were there Saturday and Sunday and went on to work with the inmates in the prison on Monday.

“We did an auto refractor test on everybody that showed up and saw a total of some 700 people on the mainland,” he said. 

 Stellhorn explained that after finding the strength level that each individual patient required, they tried glasses on them to match their sight loss.  At that point the patients were asked to read an eye chart to confirm that the refractory test was as accurate as possible.

It was much like stepping back over 100 years when people would go into a general store and find the pair of spectacles that fit their needs, he quipped.

The Manteca optometrist said it’s all worth it when the expression on someone’s face shows how thrilled they are being able to see once again.

He told of one woman who had tested at a minus 8 – a level he hadn’t seen in a long time.  She was amazed at the number of people and the surroundings she saw in the room by wearing her new glasses – thinking that she had been pretty much alone.

In the course of their travels near the Mayan Ruins, they met a woman who asked them to come by her orphanage where she said she had children with definite needs for glasses.  They saw another 80 to 90 patients at the orphanage.

The prison in Gracias had originally been set up for 350 to 400 inmates, but after a devastating fire hit another prison two years ago that count climbed upwards to 600 male prisoners and four women.  Stellhorn noted it contrasted with U.S. prisons, adding that the women just wandered around freely amongst the men.

He said the prison was also unique in that the inmates made string hammocks, bags, and purses in their spare time – anything that could be made out of fish net weaves and that are then offered for sale in front of the facility.

The eyeglass clinics were an outgrowth of Manteca dentist Ricardo Cuevas’ year as president of Manteca Rotary in 1999 and wanting to do something special in his native Tegucigalpa, the capitol of Honduras.  His father had been a medical internist there at the hospital in San Felipe.

At the time there was a dire need for internal medical doctors in the U.S. and he accepted a position in Idaho.  Cuevas would attend dental school in San Francisco and his brother went to medical school.

After going into dental practice in Manteca he wanted to do something to make a difference in his country.  With the help of the Manteca Rotary Club, he pioneered an outstanding effort to fill the dental needs in his capital city.

Ricardo planned the initial trip to Honduras on a Rotary Discovery Grant that included Mark Oliver and Stewart Schofield a Dos Palos dentist.  The trip was in the early months of 1999 right after the devastating Hurricane Mitch that hit the country and when he took over as president of Manteca Rotary.

The grant amounted to $473,000 representing the Manteca club and other clubs in the area.  The outcome was a three year 3H grant – Health, Hunger and Humanities – to set up dental clinics that Rotary International embraced. It evolved  into building some small houses after the disastrous hurricane, along with providing computers and manning other clinics evolving into the eyeglass offerings that had earlier been provided by Lions’ Clubs.

“The Manteca Rotary Club has been an example of what Rotary can accomplish as seen in the Rotary magazine,” Oliver said on Thursday.  He has been to Honduras some 30 times in the past 14 years.

Stellhorn took over the eye glass screening clinic some 10 years ago from a Rotarian in Modesto, Dr. David Gallagher, who had been working with the Mantecans and was elevated to district governor.  He didn’t have the time to devote to the operation.  Gallagher had put on several clinics in the early years.

He had been taking used prescription glasses into the jungle regions.  Oliver and Cuevas had set up a meeting with Stellhorn and Gallagher at a Salida restaurant and offered the project to him over breakfast saying the Manteca doctor could take anyone with him to set up the clinics.

Stellhorn said he asked one “outspoken Rotarian” at the back table of the weekly meetings to join him in the project and Liotard accepted.   Twice a year they see 600 to 1,000 people at a time and give them prescription glasses that they hope change their lives for the better.

Stellhorn said the excitement that Lootard witnessed on the faces of the patients when their expressions visually showed they could see – some for the first time – really got to Liotard and is the reason he keeps going back into the jungle. 

The Manteca doctor said he first ordered 12,000 glasses and has gone through a total of 35,000 pairs now costing 80 cents a pair.  Rotary underwrites two-thirds the cost of the glasses, but the team is responsible for their own airfare.

Stellhorn recently returned from being a part of another medical operation in Nuevo Progresso in San Marcos Province in Guatemala over an 11-day period where a team saw 100 patients a day over week.

“It cost me $700 for the trip and I had to share a room and we could only take carry-on luggage.  It was a team of 400,” he said that included Obgyns, physicians, plastic surgeons, internists and nurses.

“It was started by a priest who had been stationed in that area who had friends in San Francisco.  The team goes back every three months,” Stellhorn said.