Above, Fr. Pierre Labine sorts through boxes of eyeglasses with volunteers at a clinic in Romania. Below, Labine conducts an initial eye exam with one of the hundreds of people who come to the clinic. Photos courtesy VOSH Santa Cruz

Priest awarded Meritorious Service Medal for bringing eyecare to developing nations

  • March 16, 2022

For over 20 years, Canadian priest Fr. Pierre Labine has been bringing the gift of sight to people in need all over the world.

Founder of VOSH Santa Cruz, a Montreal-based international non-profit organization of optometrists, opticians and volunteers, he works to provide vision care and eyeglasses to the poor in developing countries. For his years of hard work, this year he was awarded the Meritous Service Medal, a civil decoration given by the Government of Canada in recognition of those involved in exceptional deeds bringing honour to the nation.

A member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, in 2019 he was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Award from Pope Francis for his distinguished service to the Church. While he’s grateful for the recognition of awards because of the light they shine on the important ministry, he says it has been the hard work, sacrifice and dedication of the doctors and volunteers that has kept the ministry going and growing all these years.

Over 670 million people worldwide live with impaired vision without access to eye care. Decades into the mission, being able to transform lives with a pair of glasses, he says, never gets old.

“The work gives me a purpose,” said Labine, who lives in Montreal where he also has duties working for Saint-Laurent Church.

“A lot of places that we go, the women do a lot of work with their hands such as sewing, handicrafts and doing things for their family. Sometimes they only needed reading glasses and they are able to do their work much more clearly. I’ve seen women show up and once we put the glasses on them, suddenly they pull out needles from their apron and pretend they are sewing. They get a big smile on their face because they can clearly see what they are doing.

“We’ve seen workers who got their fingers cut off because they couldn’t see clearly. For the kids it helps them stay in school because they can see, which means they can learn to read and write. We’ve had parents start crying and say, ‘My kid can go back to school’ because they were treated as dumb because they couldn’t see.”

The organization’s many missions have included trips to Mexico, Peru, Moldova, Romania, Senegal, Tunisia, Cameroon and Haiti. The meaning of a free eye exam and pair of glasses is measureless in these nations where spectacles can run up to $400 (U.S.) when the people are often earning just three or four dollars a day.

Doctors and volunteers come from Canada, the U.S., Australia, Europe and other parts of the world. To date the mission has seen over 200,000 people and distributed half a million pairs of glasses. With major partners in the optical industry around the world, they receive donations of new and used glasses and the dedicated team examines each pair to make sure their clients are only getting the best.

“Not because we’re giving (the glasses) to poor people do we bring them junk,” said Labine. “Our flag is flying there, and they know we’re from Canada. We have to analyze each pair of glasses one by one. My bottom line is if you’re not going to wear them or you wouldn’t give them to somebody in your family, put them in the recycling box.”

The team sends glasses that are not up to standard to a partner in California, who recycles them and sends them some money back which helps pay expenses. Funded by donations, the biggest annual expense is the nearly $40,000 a year spent on rent for the Montreal warehouse.

Labine’s involvement with the vision project began when he teamed up with a former student, an optometrist, and others to go to Mexico in 1999 to provide eye care for the needy. Two years later, they went on a second mission to Mexico and adopted the name Voluntarios Santa Cruz (Holy Cross Volunteers).

While they had willing doctors, putting the mission together would be a logistical nightmare for most, but not for Labine, who feels a special calling for administration. Quickly nations began requesting clinics. In 2003, they were invited to partner alongside VOSH Optometry. Recognized by the World Health Organization, VOSH (Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity) gave them access to a wider pool of resources including doctors.

The mission only grew from there. Labine works with the Lions and Rotary clubs in the various countries, which help to organize and set up the clinic in preparation for their arrival. Over time, clinics at regular stops have become well-oiled machines, so when the team touches down they can hit the ground running. In Mexico, for example, he’s been working with the same people for 20 years. The clinics see hundreds of people a day. The have held missions in danger areas such as former war zones in Guatemala where genocides have taken place. All services are performed free of charge.

Over the years people have written to express their gratitude. The missions have not only impacted the people receiving glasses and eye examinations but also people who have worked for the mission and wealthier individuals in these nations who feel through the mission they have a means of giving back to their community. One young boy who was helping to translate on one of the organization’s early clinics in Mexico is now 33 years old and has taken over running the mission in his home country.

VOSH Santa Cruz has not been able to go anywhere for the past two years due to COVID-19. Despite this the organization has been working throughout, putting teams together, and is planning a trip to Ecuador at the end of July. The team, Labine says, is always looking for optometrists and opticians to participate in its eye missions.

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