Vancouver optician makes vision care her mission in Rwanda and at home

Jean Saveur, pictured here at work, is among the trainees Vancouver’s Michelle Swami trained during a November 2019 trip to Rwanda to help set up new vision clinics.


Hindsight is 20/20 but a new pair of glasses can be life-changing.

Just ask a Vancouver optician who recently returned from setting up much-needed vision clinics in Rwanda and who is now raising funds to continue that work here in the Downtown Eastside.

Michelle Swami, 31, is among the team of 12 optometrists and opticians from Canada, the U.S. and The Gambia who travelled to Rwanda last month with OneSight to train staff to work in self-sustaining vision clinics in Kigali and the surrounding area.

“We are working on empowering locals to help locals by training them to run a vision centre as well as establishing manufacturing facilities,” said Swami, adding that all facilities are then managed by and create jobs for locals.

“Everything from doing a simple eye exam, glasses adjustment and a pre-test – we passed on our skills.”

OneSight is a non-profit that works to provide vision care to the 1.1 billion people living around the world without access to an eye clinic or glasses. In Rwanda alone, OneSight has helped to establish 33 vision centres, serving 10.8 million people.

It is the second time Swami has made the trip to Rwanda, prompted by her own experience wearing glasses and an understanding of the importance of vision.

Figures provided by OneSight show that clear vision can improve an adult’s productivity by 35 per cent, increase their earning ability by 20 per cent and reduce student drop-out rates by 44 per cent.

During her most recent trip, Swami’s team treated a woman who thought her poor vision was normal and didn’t realize glasses could help.

“She was so excited to go home and cut her nails. Just a normal task she couldn’t do without glasses,” said Swami.

Another of Swami’s trainees was Jean Saveur, a nurse working to become a dispensing optician who was caught quietly reading eye charts during training.

“He then admitted he broke his glasses a long time ago but didn’t tell anyone because he knew he was training for this job and couldn’t afford any new ones,” said Swami.

Moved by his determination, Swami and another colleague Don Biermann sent Saveur to have his eyes checked, found that he had a high level of astigmatism and pooled funds to buy him a new pair of glasses.

KIGALI, RWANDA: NOVEMBER 2019 – Michelle Swami (left) is a Vancouver woman who travelled to Rwanda with OneSight to help open vision clinics. While there, Swami noticed one of her trainees Jean Saveur (middle) attempting to read a vision chart, only to learn he himself had broken his glasses and was embarrassed about his vision and inability to complete simple tasks. Saveur has since been fitted for proper glasses, after Swami and her colleague Don Biermann (right) pooled cash to buy Saveur a new pair of glasses. He then became the first patient and customer at the clinic where he now works in Kinihari, Rwanda.



“This was very emotional because not only can he see again, he can do his work with fewer headaches,” she said. “Plus, we helped support his vision centre by being the first pair of glasses the vision centre sold, ever.”

Since returning to home, Swami has started fundraising to continue OneSight’s mission both locally in the Downtown Eastside, across the country and overseas.

“Knowing I can help someone out whose glasses broke and are in a bind, or just got glasses for the first time and saw things that they didn’t know they could? That, to me, will never get old,” she said.

For more information about OneSight or to donate, visit Swami’s campaign page online.

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