During a Global Aid Network® spring break trip to San Salvador and surrounding villages, 765 Salvadorans received free eyeglasses.

Taking Sight and Salvation to El Salvador

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In El Salvador’s sweltering heat, Josiah Lee sweats through scrubs emblazoned with the Global Aid Network® logo. For hours he has tested people’s eyesight and fitted them for free glasses, yet a crowd remains in the waiting room. As each new person approaches, he introduces the eye chart. Sometimes he speaks in moderately fluent Spanish; sometimes, an interpreter helps.

As he leads Salvadorans through vision tests, Josiah builds relationships quickly and often starts conversations with the patients. Many times he can pray for them.

Josiah Lee leads a patient through a vision test. The “Tumbling E” eye chart allows him and his team to perform vision tests without medical or language training.

A recipient of new glasses poses in front of the Mission Iglesia de Ciudad Victoria Cabañas, El Salvador. Most cities and villages have a Catholic mission at their center.

After praying for a wizened old man, the recipient of the prayer turns Josiah’s question around, asking how he can pray for Josiah. After a hard, hot week of work, Josiah is exhausted and discouraged. He gratefully accepts the man’s supplications, rattled off in Spanish on his behalf. Then, wiping sweat from his brow, Josiah calls another patient.

Kim Hiemstra, a GAiN® staff member and team leader, helps a local man find the right glasses.

For many in El Salvador, prescription glasses are prohibitively expensive. Vision clinics like this one help people to see clearly.

From Seattle to San Salvador

Born in South Korea, Josiah spent most of his formative years in Bremerton, near Seattle, Washington. He understood the gospel at age 12 when a missionary spoke at his church. The man, whom Josiah described as being “an older gentleman in his 60s or even 70s with grey and white hair, very short in stature,” shared stories and photos of his time in tribal areas. He also spoke of what Jesus had done, not just overseas, but in his own life.

Josiah remembers the moment he first understood the gospel. “He didn’t say anything profound. It was the same thing I’d been hearing for 12 years, but something just clicked in me.”

Josiah remembers the moment he first understood the gospel. “He didn’t say anything profound. It was the same thing I’d been hearing for 12 years, but something just clicked in me.” Josiah wondered what it would look like to share the truths of God’s Word as a full-time job. Since that day, the desire grew and thrived, fed by a passion for studying the Bible.

Josiah (left) walks an elderly woman out after a vision clinic. An interpreter (right) helps bridge the language gap.

Josiah and his team meet with students on the Universidad Evangélica de El Salvador (UEES) campus. The GAiN® spring break trip combined vision clinics and campus evangelism.

Since finishing his undergrad degree, Josiah joined short- and medium-term missions opportunities, including spending time in East Asia and a week-long trip showing the “JESUS” film in Eastern Europe. He also dabbled in accounting, teaching English and acting.

Josiah is now working toward a master’s degree in biblical counseling from The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, California.

When he received an email about this trip to El Salvador’s capital city of San Salvador to help with vision clinics, Josiah saw an opening in his schedule and signed up.

A packed waiting room reflects the high demand for glasses.

The “Tumbling E” eye chart made giving eye tests easy.

The vision behind the clinics

As the humanitarian partner of Cru®, GAiN’s mission includes relieving suffering, restoring dignity and revealing hope to people living in areas, both globally and locally, in need of material assistance. Projects include delivering meals and agricultural supplies, setting up clean water supplies, disaster relief and free vision clinics in the toughest places on earth.

In El Salvador, this team splits time between vision clinics and campus evangelism. This variety enabled Josiah and the other trip participants to meet people’s needs on many levels.

The UEES was founded in 1981.

Medical and dental students walk on the UEES campus.

When they weren’t meeting with students at the Universidad Evangélica de El Salvador, Josiah’s team served hundreds of local people through clinics to equip them with glasses.

For many, these new glasses offered their first chance to see clearly in years.

Children as young as 12 came to get free glasses at the GAiN® clinics.

Josiah and an interpreter take a man through vision testing with a pair of prescription lenses. GAiN® gives away between 10,000 and 15,000 pairs of glasses a year.

They performed vision tests with a special eye chart called a “Tumbling E.” Like standard charts, a series of increasingly small lines of text determines someone’s vision. However, in order to make medical and language training unnecessary, all of the symbols resemble a capital letter E but facing different directions. People simply point up, down, left or right to show which way the letter is facing.

After testing with charts to estimate the appropriate strength for the participant’s glasses, testing continues with slightly stronger and weaker lenses to refine their selection.

Josiah tests a patient’s close-up vision. These tests determined the diopter, or strength, of their needed lenses.

Both young and old people received glasses and left with clearer vision and gospel resources.

The team served nearly 800 people over the course of a few days. Each pair of glasses connects to a story of God’s love tangibly expressed.

Switching between the sets of glasses, the trip participants would ask, “¿Mejor o peor?”, Spanish for “Better or worse?” Finally, the patient would walk away with a new pair of lenses, often able to see clearly for the first time in years. The team served nearly 800 people from March 11–15, 2019. Each pair of glasses connects to a story of God’s love tangibly expressed.

The team prays with a woman who was too ill to visit the clinic.

In addition to spiritual conversations during the clinics, patients read John 3:16 to try out their new lenses and received Christian resources on the way out.

A Salvadoran expresses joy at her improved vision.

An American student on the project explains Jesus’ love to a campus security guard using a version of the Four Spiritual Laws booklet in both Spanish and English.

Staff members and students with the local Cru movement followed up with them later. One of GAiN’s goals is to provide humanitarian resources and coaching to Cru ministries around the world.

The tangible kindness of Jesus

Kim Hiemstra (right) helped lead the trip, just seven years after a brain tumor caused her to lose all language ability.

Of the hundreds who received glasses, some responded with tearful gratitude, some with barely voiced thanks. A few people on Josiah’s small team led students and eyeglass recipients to Christ.

Kim’s Ministry Pivot

Kim Hiemstra, a Cru staff member from the U.S. working on a campus in Venezuela, saw her plans derailed by a brain tumor in 2012.

Surgeons removed the tumor, but the removal took her language abilities as well. For months, Kim was unable to communicate. With time and effort, her abilities to read, write and talk came back. Oddly, her Spanish skills returned first. She theorizes that this is because she had a framework for learning Spanish still in mind, whereas she had learned English much earlier in life.

Now, she carries on with life and ministry with few ill effects from her season of linguistic challenge. She even sees the experience as pivotal in moving her to work for GAiN.

As she felt pain and struggle, she began to better identify with those around the world who face long-term challenges. The trip to El Salvador was the second time Kim has led a humanitarian trip since recovering from her brain tumor and beginning work with them.

Kim Hiemstra, one of the two team leaders for the trip, had to hike to a remote area in order to help an older, disabled woman. When the woman received her new glasses, after decades of being unable to see clearly, she wept. The woman explained to the team through tears, with great emotion, that she could finally see her grandchildren’s faces clearly.

Because many men in El Salvador work on farms, they carry machetes for clearing brush.

A woman fries plantains that she sells to passersby.

GAiN® held vision clinics in old churches and local elementary schools in the hope of reaching as many people as possible.

Fond memories of the bright colors and smiling faces of El Salvador remain with Josiah. Small blessings stand out: locals making him home-cooked meals, refreshing prayers and conversations, and the time when he met a group of students with a small dog on campus.

Josiah saw the tangible effects of the kindness of Jesus, not just in the thanks of those the clinics served, but in the generosity shown to him and his team.

Josiah prayed with patients in El Salvador. Many in the country grew up attending church, so they eagerly accepted prayers.

Because bad vision leads to difficulty in education and danger in some jobs, glasses can vastly improve someone’s quality of life.

A new name for GAiN

Learn more about joining a humanitarian trip with GAiN.

As you explore opportunities, note that as of February 2020, GAiN will be called Unto™in the United States. Some international partners find GAiN’s association with Cru to be an obstacle for them. These partners are dependent on government funding and/or are concerned about risking their nonprofit status. Therefore, this shift to becoming Unto will allow the ministry to be more missionally effective and to better communicate the gospel.

Get Involved

Discover opportunities for taking a humanitarian trip with GAiN® this year and watch a video about this vision clinic in El Salvador.

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Elliott Dodge
Words by

Elliott Dodge

Elliott is a journalist with Cru®. He grew up in South Carolina and graduated from the University of South Carolina (the real USC) with an English degree. He plans to visit every continent; so far he’s been 71 percent successful.

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Ted Wilcox
Photos by

Ted Wilcox

Ted loves zigzagging the globe, capturing photos and stories of what God is doing. Originally from California, he serves as a missionary photojournalist with Cru® in Orlando, Florida. Ted also ministers to international scholars who come to Orlando to study.

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