Dr. Cathy Schanzer and Tom Lewis have been traveling to Africa since 1988 to care for the poor and visually needy, to help develop village resources, and to thank God for their amazing Holy Spirit led journey. They began with caring for neglected eyes. As they fell in love with the people of Serabu, their caring expanded into other needs and opportunities.
The primary purpose of Southern Eye Institute is to operate Southern Eye Clinic of Serabu, a full-time free eye care clinic that annually treats over 15,000 patients who travel to Serabu from seven different West African countries. Annually SECS performs over 600 eye surgeries and provides thousands of eye examinations, eye medicines and eye glasses to poor and needy patients. Other patient support services include arranging for lodging and food for travelers to Serabu and giving them additional food for their trip home. SEI also supports the local Serabu community with hundreds of school scholarships; operates a 20-station computer center; maintains nine deep water wells; annually distributes over 150,000 meals; organizes sport events and local talent contests; coordinates home construction projects; and serves as a compassionate resource to Serabu, Sierra Leone and West Africa. SEI also leads mission volunteers from the USA to Serabu.
One of SEI's benefactors donates the travel expenses of any Catholic priest that wishes to join a mission trip. There is plenty to do for a mission priest since half the village is Catholic! Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Serabu, plus ten outreach village churches, a local hospital, Southern Eye Clinic, five village schools and 5,000 curious Serabu residents, creates a multitude of opportunities to evangelize and minister to our African friends. Visiting priests have included Fr. Ben Bradshaw, Fr. Bruce Nieli, Fr. David Knight (twice), Fr. Dexter Noblefranca, Fr. Greg Salata and most recently, Fr. Anthony Baetzold, a Franciscan priest from Albuquerque NM who has been the lead priest of the Memphis Friar Fest Youth Retreat for the last five years.
As well, for the last two years Wills Eye Hospital of Philadelphia has sponsored an eye surgeon to join Cathy during the January mission trips. One impact has been that the surgical volume has grown to over 300 cases per mission trip. Recently Wills Eye Hospital decided to expand their effort and send an eye surgeon for both the January and June mission trips. This is wonderful news for the patients of Southern Eye Clinic of Serabu as many more blind patients will have their vision restored. This is also great news for Sierra Leone as Will Eye Hospital visiting doctors teach local eye care providers to enhance their eye care skills and knowledge. The first two Wills Eye Hospital doctors were Dr. Cristos Ifantides in 2017 and Dr. Brad Feldman in 2018. These two men are great eye surgeons and wonderful human beings!!!
As improbable as it may seem, there are people in the United States who have been blind for years from their cataracts and cannot afford cataract surgery. One such place is located in a poor, eastern neighborhood of San Antonio, Texas. A few years ago, University of the Incarnate Word Rosenberg School of Optometry decided to build an eye clinic, the Bowden Eye Clinic, in this part of San Antonio, in order to assist this under-served population of approximately 200,000 people. At the same time that development was underway, students from UIWRSO began clinical rotations with Dr. Schanzer in both Africa and in Memphis. So when the Bowden Eye Clinic wanted to offer low cost cataract surgery to these needy residents, Dr. Schanzer was an obvious eye surgeon to consider and she eagerly joined in this humanitarian effort.
The first cataract surgery of this new San Antonio campaign occurred on March 24, 2017. The patient's name was Javi (short for Javier) and he had been blind from cataracts for nearly ten years. He and his family had no insurance and historically had no means of paying for his sight-restoring surgery. After his surgery, when Javi first saw and acknowledged his sister, she cried in the recovery room, explaining that she had promised their dying mother that some how she would find a way to get Javi his cataract surgery. During his next day post-operative visit, she reported that Javi read out loud the names of every street between their home and the clinic. Unfortunately, Javi's situation is not unique. It is commonplace for these cataract patients to be visually impaired or blind for an excessive amount of time. Thankfully UIWRSO had the good judgement to recognize this need and the heart to address it. And thankfully Dr. Schanzer answered the call to get involved in this charity care project and had the courage to help develop much lower cost, office-based cataract surgery. Dr. Schanzer travels to San Antonio for a three-day trip during each of the ten months per year she is not in Africa.
Every Mission trip is extra special due to the efforts of the prayer community of the Central Mosque of Serabu. Even before we arrive they are assisting visitors to Southern Eye Clinic of Serabu with food and lodging. For example, the Chief Imam's family extends their hospitality to upwards of fifty visitors in the course of one of our mission trips, sometimes even when they have no place in their house for themselves to sleep. Their charity is humbling to all who witness it. And their kindness is typical of this Mosque community. One of the favorite moments of the team occurs on the first Friday afternoon of each of our mission trips. They are invited to the Mosque where they are prayed over. The moment is very moving and draws each member of the team closer to God. Serabu is unique in that it is half Muslim and half Christian. They grow up together, go to school together, struggle together, help each other, love each other. Serabu shows the world how to live in peace. As Dr. Cathy and Tom say, “God bless you Serabu!!!”
Cathy and Tom typically begin each day at early morning Mass. Whether in Memphis at St. Louis Church or in Serabu at Sacred Heart Church, weekday Mass begins at 6:15 am. But there is a difference in the ambiance of each Church in the morning darkness. “Nonetheless, the peace and joy of beginning each day with the Eucharist is both wonderful and strengthening. Thank you Jesus for giving and sharing your life.”
If you would like more information or would like to find out ways you can help, your call is welcome. The phone number to Southern Eye Institute is 901-569-3939.
You can also find more of this story in the October edition of Faith West Magazine.