Bob Martin has been recognized as Greatest Person of the Day on The Huffington Post, a feature that spotlights ordinary and extraordinary people in Patch communities whose acts of courage, determination, volunteerism and compassion have made a difference. These are people who inspire and energize others to strengthen their communities and improve lives.
Escaping the doldrums of a summer job mixing soil for a local nursery, New Lenox resident Bob Martin sought adventure and goodwill in South America.
He was 15 at the time, canoeing down rivers with a bunch of teenagers, taking in unique food and culture and meeting the faces of political strife. The experience was enough to draw him back, but the linchpin was, and still is, the thousands of people who are helped every year.
“It was such a great feeling that I kept doing it,” said Martin, now 52. “We had a lot of excitement. Once it got into my blood I couldn’t stop.”
In high school, Martin read about Amigos de las Americas, a non-profit organization that gives high school and college students an opportunity for community service in Latin America. Martin only had the intention of going for one year, but he ended up staying through college.
Every summer, he went to Latin American countries to help in a number of ways, such as administering vaccinations. After he was too old for the Amigos program, Martin and others he worked with still wanted to help out in Latin America. So they started their own non-profit organization, Vision Health International.
One of the best parts is when I take their patch off and they can see.
The organization is funded entirely through donations and it’s operated by health care professionals and other volunteers who give their time for several programs throughout the year. According to the Vision Health website, the organization has provided 15,000 eye exams, 13,000 pairs of eyeglasses and 3,000 sight-restoring surgeries since its founding in 1985.
“One of the best parts is when I take their patch off and they can see. I say, ‘Am I handsome?’ and they say, ‘Yes!’” Martin said. “Their medical system is so backlogged that they have to go to a private opthalmologist and they just can’t do that. For them to buy a pair of glasses for $60 just isn’t going to happen.
"It makes a big impact. A husband can go back to work. A kid can go to school without being teased all the time. A mother can start sewing again if she makes a living off that."
He said one woman who regained her sight after surgery named her baby Randy, after the doctor who helped her. The impact on the people is huge, and the organization has had a far reach.
The organization has been to Ecaudor, Peru, Guatemala during its Civil War and many other countries. Everyone pays their own way for the trip and use vacation days to get off work. All of the money donated goes toward providing health care. It costs $35,000 to run one program, and Vision Health puts together a few every year. The volunteers stay in schools, hospitals, homes of the locals or anywhere else they can.
Martin said his volunteer work, especially the Amigos de las Americas program, was “the greatest thing I’ve ever done,” and he encourages everyone to find a way to experience that same feeling of giving while learning about a different culture.
“People always say I’m so giving. But I get a lot more than I give from the program,” Martin said. “It makes me value what I have. I have a TV, a car, clean water, a bathroom. These people don’t have these things. It’s a whole different world than what I’m used to here.”
He has four children—three in college and one in high school—and he took them to Latin America when they were young.
“I wanted to show them that life isn’t sitting around playing Playstation on a big screen TV and ordering Pizza Hut pizzas,” Martin said. “This helped shaped my values.”
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