Volunteering in a Hilltribe Village with Amigo Vision Thailand
Recently we had the amazing opportunity to volunteer with Amigo Vision Thailand, providing free eye exams and glasses to schoolchildren in a Karion hilltribe village in Northern Thailand. Our experience brought us outside the city to a place where no one spoke English and introduced us to a wonderful group of like-minded fellow travelers and expats. Our trip was a unique one, spurred by grassroots efforts, word of mouth and chance meetings of people who came together to support a common cause.
One night while eating at Mammary Delicious restaurant, we spoke with Steve, the owner, who told us about his involvement with Alan of Thai Bike Tours UK and Explore 4×4 Thailand supporting his fundraising work with the remote hilltribe village five kilometers from Mae Na Chon. He explained that a new event was about to take place in conjunction with Amigo Vision Thailand (AVT) and invited us to come along on the upcoming trip to Mae Na Chon village and school. Alan privately raises funds to help the village and he coordinated with AVT to schedule a clinic to give these kids their first ever eye exams.
Amigo Vision Thailand
AVT is a nonprofit organization that provides eye exams and glasses to people in rural areas who normally don’t have access to these services. The group has been around since 2011 and is run by members of the International Rotary Club.
AVT receives new and used glasses from donors, but all lenses are new and made with the personalized prescription for each person. Some volunteer organizations give used glasses that closely match the recipient’s prescription, but AVT strives to meet high standards of care and all patients receive made-to-order lenses. (Learn how you can donate frames at the bottom of this post.)
Ban Mai Phatthana Santi Border Patrol Police School
The school serves the children of the neighboring village. About 80 children, many of whom speak a dialect of Thai that is difficult for even native speakers to understand, don’t speak any English. The school is supported by the Thai Border Control Police and is completely staffed by volunteers. Many of the villagers were Burmese refugees and settled into the area. They belong to the Karion tribe, an ethnic minority group that lives primarily in the northern mountains of Thailand.
The drive from Chiang Mai to the small resort where we stayed overnight was about 3 hours. We passed through many national park checkpoints as we drove up to Mae Na Chon on the other side of Doi Inthanon. The curves were enough to make even the most seasoned off-roader carsick, but the mountain views were spectacular. The last couple miles of road up to the hill tribe were the most difficult. The road was uneven and unpaved with steep grades and sections barely wide enough for a truck.
At one point after heavy rains we even became stuck in a foot of mud and had to get out and push our vehicle a bit before we could continue. Luckily, some other members of our group weren’t far ahead and saw us plop into the mud and a car of Thais stopped to lend a hand as well. We saw some villager braving the route on scooters, but I could not imagine reaching the village in anything other than a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.
Once we arrived at the village, we set up the clinic in one of the classrooms and assigned the children ID cards. They were given a vision test and those who couldn’t make out the letters went on to the auto-refractor machines and the optometrist who fit children for glasses. If the prescription was strong enough, they picked out frames to send to a manufacturer in Chiang Mai to be fit for new lenses.
Although the children couldn’t speak English, many were able to read numbers. For those who couldn’t, they read a C chart which shows the letter C with the opening in different places. The reader holds a plastic C and puts the open section in the same place as the one on the chart. With translators on hand and lots of hand motions, we were able to explain the process to everyone.
We saw about 70 kids in one day thanks to a sufficient organizational system and the amazingly well-behaved children. Even without a common language, it was easy to motion them into a line and convey basic instructions. When we gave them numbers on a string to wear around their necks and they put themselves in order without being asked. Clever kids. The older groups were a great help as well, corralling the little ones on to the next station when they didn’t quite understand.
Typically, these clinics result in about 15% of patients needing glasses. On this day, only four schoolchildren and a few staff members left with frames. It is rewarding to know that these kids may have had no idea that they couldn’t see clearly, and with glasses their quality of life will greatly improve. We both wear glasses and can’t imagine trying to get through the day without them.
At night we stayed at Hot Coffee Resort, a quaint collection of basic rooms and bungalows that benefits a children’s home located on site. (This organization is not affiliated with the village we visited or AVT.) We ate together on a raised patio overlooking the river and gardens, reflecting on the day. It was great to see people from North America, Europe and Thailand all coming together to acknowledge the needs of the region. It is refreshing to see the work of a few people, many strangers prior to taking this trip, benefiting a common cause.
How you can help
They are always accepting donated glasses (new or used in good condition, but no more than 3 years old). Monetary donations can be made to Toys for Thailand, a partner organization of AVT that helps support their clinics.
AVT is also currently looking for a tonometer, a costly machine that helps scan the eye for glaucoma. Glaucoma is a major cause of unnecessary blindness, and a tonometer would help with early detection.