At 6am this past Friday morning, our entire staff met in the front yard of our doctor’s house to begin a long journey – 5 1/2 hours by car, in fact – down to McAllen, Texas. McAllen is a small city in the Southern tip of Texas within the Rio Grande Valley, whose southern city limit is also the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The reason for our visit was neither profit nor marketing; rather, to conduct an in-kind vision screening at a local Occupational Therapy Center for families and children who otherwise would not have access to such information. The ride was long, and for those who have never visited Texas, August and September are the hottest and most brutally humid months we have, with the constant threat of a tropical storm organizing itself just off the coast. Because of its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, the weather in McAllen is unpredictable, the mosquitoes are rampant and unforgiving, and the locals warn against driving too close to the border of Mexico – as the cartels apparently have taken pleasure in firing random bullets “over the fence” from the Mexico side. The population in McAllen consists of two groups – the poor and the poorer – with many adults holding jobs based in agriculture or retail. They are farmers, grocery store cashiers, truck drivers and gas station attendants. They work hard for not very much and yet somehow find a way to make ends meet. They grew up in McAllen, and for better or worse, it is home.
We arrived shortly after 11:30 and were quickly instructed by the Clinical Director to bring anything of value from our rental car into their center. Since my suitcase contained only a pair of basketball shorts to sleep in and a change of clothes for Saturday morning, I mentioned I’d be leaving my things in the car. The director quickly asked me if forgoing her suggestion was “worth four broken windows?”. Point taken. This place is serious.
I’ve participated in many vision screenings in my 13 plus years in VT, and generally, they are all fairly similar. Lots of kids, lots of questions, lots of business cards handed out and a community served. This screening however, was quite a bit different from what I’m used to, but not how you might think. Unlike their surroundings, the people we met were fantastic and welcoming. Whatever they might lack financially, they make up for tenfold in respect, gratitude and humility. They don’t ask for much, they expect even less, and since quality medical care in McAllen can be difficult to come by, they seemed overjoyed that we chose to spend our day with them. One father even told me that having us in McAllen was “like Christmas Day” for his family and friends. Little did I know, the gifts would be provided by them.
I met an incredibly smart 9 year old girl who bragged that her parents had taken her to Olive Garden the night before to celebrate her birthday, a meal away from home that occurs only on special occasions. I met a severely handicapped little boy who was blind in one eye following an untreated injury, deaf since birth, and has a lung condition that prevents him from running, jumping or playing with his friends for longer than 5 minutes at a time; and he was determined to make MY day with his antics (which he totally did). There was a little boy who was wheelchair bound with a speech impediment who asked if I liked his shoes (he wasn’t wearing any) and when l stuck my head under the table to look at his feet, he laughed contagiously. There was a very studious 5 year old that inquired about my lunch, no doubt hoping to trade. All the kids, yes all of them, were amazing and had an amazing story to share. They were handicapped, had Autism, suffered from Cerebral Palsy, were wheelchair bound, learning disabled, under developed, deaf, mute, couldn’t read, couldn’t write or just had fallen behind in school and in life. Despite their many maladies though, they all had one common feature – a smile. Those most unforgettable smiles.
Our ride home on Saturday seemed three times longer than the ride down, all of us sniffling with sinus headaches or infections thanks to the humidity and ragweed. To a person though, we were all grateful for the experience, and remain in awe of the human spirit we witnessed. Whomever coined the phrase that “money makes the world go ’round” clearly was not from McAllen, as their values are far above a dollar bill. They work hard, they love their life, and they care for their own – three qualities money cannot buy. The people of McAllen are simple people, and honesty is the currency they treasure most. Like all of us, they want the best for their kids and for one day, they allowed us to participate in their quest. They are ordinary people with extraordinary hearts.
We plan on repeating our trip next year. I am already looking forward to it.