Written by Anne-Marie Welsh*
Photos by Mark and Deb Fainstein
Guatemalan photos and captions by Rich and Lisa Gensheimer
You’d think it would be enough for a young optometrist to travel to some of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere — Haiti, Jamaica, Guatemala, Cuba, Trinidad — on mission trips for a few weeks a couple of times a year.
You’d think Dr. Doug Villella, O.D., ’78, would be satisfied knowing he and his colleagues were changing lives by preventing the blindness glaucoma can cause, examining thousands of patients over the years and providing glasses and medication to people who would otherwise have no access to eye care.
But he was not.
Even for a young man with an adventurous heart, you’d think it might be enough to doggedly pursue a connection with a complete stranger, Vincent Pescatore, who was running orphanages for the children of civil war victims in Guatemala, then hop into a tiny airplane with him and fly out of a cow pasture into the unknown.
At one point Pescatore had to navigate through two mountain peaks because the plane didn’t have enough get-up-and-go to actually make it over the range.
When they got to the remote rainforest outpost, Villella and his team provided basic care to hundreds of children who had never been seen by an eye doctor.
You’d think maybe then he’d be satisfied that he was doing enough.
Fortunately for the thousands and thousands of patients now being served by the permanent eye clinics Villella has helped to establish in Guatemala, he was not. And, of course, he’s not done yet.
It’s a fascinating, spirit-infused story of trust. We all have dreams and passions.
What is it that allows Villella to live his so fully? What goes on inside as he stares down one obstacle after another?
And how has the Erie, Pa., optometrist grown through this incredible adventure?
From the beginning, there were amazing, synchronous events. There was the intense, first mission trip to Haiti as he neared the end of his studies in optometry that followed the completion of his undergraduate degree in biology from St. Bonaventure.
“I went along because I was interested in travel,” Villella admits. “I had no idea I would want to be involved forever.”
After graduation from Pennsylvania College of Optometry, Villella left the Philadelphia area.
A year later, he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to get off I-95 as he drove past his old stomping grounds to see if he could say hello to Fr. Tony, a Franciscan who ran the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen.
Villella had frequently sought him out for dinner and considered him a friend and role model during his years of study.
The priest known to Villella as “Fr. Tony” is today known as Fr. Bob Struzynski, O.F.M. Fr. Bob is now a member of the Mt. Irenaeus community and was a member of the theology faculty and Campus Ministry when Villella attended St. Bona-venture.
“I pulled in, and he was two minutes from getting in his car,” says Villella.
“He had just closed down the operation after seven years, and was leaving to begin missionary work in Jamaica.”
He shakes his head at the memory. “Three minutes later and I would have missed him.”
So it was another year later Villella found himself in Jamaica. “I went so I could understand Fr. Tony’s work,” Villella says. “I spent the week sharing in the community and prayer life of several priests at the mission. I witnessed how they immersed themselves in the culture.”
Fr. Tony’s ability to break down barriers made an impression on Villella.
“He didn’t want to be a priest handing out food and clothing in a church,” Villella says. “I appreciated the degree to which he wanted to be present to the people he served.”
The Jamaican experience stayed with Villella as he traveled to a handful of developing nations on mission trips twice a year over the next few years. It was a heady feeling to take the skills he had been taught and use them for people in dire need.
“There was a lot of empowerment for us and for the people we served,” he says. “But as I look back on it, we were completely shrouded in naiveté.”
Eventually, an unsettled feeling grew in Villella.
“I began to wonder if I was serving my own needs more than the needs of the people,” he says. He sensed a call to do more, even though it wasn’t clear what that might mean.
And then in 1995, an encounter with a family in Guatemala changed everything.
On one of his mission trips, Villella was caring for people at a temporary clinic set up in Guatemala. As usual, people were coming from miles around for eye care.
At one point, he happened to see an elderly man guided by his two sons as they arrived in the courtyard outside the clinic. He guessed they had been walking for at least two days.
“Without even bringing him into the clinic, I could tell right away that we would not be able to help him,” Villella says. “He had dense cataracts and we were not prepared to offer surgery.”
His heart sank.
Sure, he could share information about surgery options in Guatemala City.
But that was a 10-hour bus ride away.
“They did not know much about life beyond their village,” Villella explains. “It was not realistic to think they would even be able to find their way to the hospital.” At that point, he was angered by the thought he was doing more harm than good.
“I knew that if another team came to the area in the future, perhaps with a surgeon, this man and his sons would not return. What would make them think the journey would be worthwhile?” he asks.
So Villella was open to new answers. At the end of that same week, he finally got through to Vincent Pescatore using the one phone in the village. They made arrangements for Villella and two colleagues to meet Pescatore in that cow pasture/air strip the next day.
“I had no idea why I was visiting him,” says Villella, who had been encouraged to call by a friend adopting children from Pescatore’s orphanage. But the two formed an instant connection and had several important conversations in the one day they had together.
“Vincent said, ‘I need you to build an eye clinic,’” Villella remembers. “He didn’t say, ‘Could you, or would you,’ he said, ‘I need you to.’ But he was completely transparent, a holy man.”
Villella says Pescatore always went 10 steps beyond what he’d ever seen anybody do when seeking God’s help prayerfully.
“He didn’t just pray and fast, he slept on the floor,” Villella says.
“So my response wasn’t, ‘Let me think about it.’ Because of who he was and what he was, I immediately said, ‘OK, we’ll do it.’”
Looking back, Villella says it was almost comical.
“I had no skill other than taking care of people’s eyes,” he says. “No grant writing, no fundraising, no idea about what it takes to run a nonprofit. But I still didn’t hesitate.”
Returning to Erie, Pa., Villella brought the news to board members of what was then called Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (now Vision for the Poor).
“That was the beginning of a struggle that continues today,” he says, acknowledging a challenging divide between those who wanted to move forward with the clinic and those who preferred an emphasis on shorter mission trips.
Villella and Pescatore met several times in 1995, both here and abroad. But in 1996, Pescatore perished in a plane crash in Honduras where he was building another orphanage.
So early in the process, how did this affect Villella’s commitment? He struggles for words as he considers the moment.
“Vincent had such a positive influence on everyone he met, you wanted to honor his life,” he says.
“He believed his vision was God’s vision. He was about creating the kingdom of God here on earth. The message was simple: The people in the developing world deserve health care services. So to honor his life, we carried on his mission.”
Pescatore had introduced Villella to Dr. Antonio Hernandez, a native Guatemalan eye doctor who was interested in working with the rural poor.
Villella called the International Eye Foundation about grant money; the director he happened to speak to said there was only one doctor he knew of in Guatemala who would be suited to the kind of work Villella was looking to establish: Antonio Hernandez.
So with the first serious grant in hand, space was rented, and once a month Hernandez left his practice in Guatemala City to serve the people in the rainforest.
Eventually Hernandez brought two more doctors into the effort and Villella continued to hone his skills as a fundraiser back in the United States.
Villella kept trying to listen through prayer.
“So often we have our eyes on a goal and we try swimming upstream to get there,” he says. “But grace doesn’t flow that way. Now I’ve quit swimming and I go with the flow. I still bump into rocks along the way, but I also find ways around them. The challenge is, you never really know where you are going or what’s around the bend.”
Over time, things began coming together.
“Right about the day I was ready to pull my hair out — we were floundering at the end of the ’90s — a friend of mine who works at a foundation came in for an eye exam. I was chatting about the clinic and he said, ‘I’m a grant writer, can I help you?’” Villella chuckles: “You’d think by now I wouldn’t worry about things at all!” he says.
In 2004, with the help of grants from the Lions Club, the Rotary Club and numerous individual benefactors, the Pescatore Eye Clinic opened in Petén where Vincent had wanted to build. It’s a state-of-the-art facility addressing all eye care needs from new eye glasses to cataract surgery and corneal transplants.
But Villella is even more excited about what he believes the future holds.
Next on the agenda are similar clinics in Haiti and Nicaragua, where surgeons in those countries are building infrastructure. In fact, plans are in place for 15 clinics in eight countries using the Guatemalan model.
“We are by no means secure in our efforts to raise the money we will need,” Villella says, “especially in this economy.”
But then he thinks back on the events of the past 20 years. “As always,” he says, with a shrug of the shoulders, “that is out of our hands.”