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Former Sault resident recognized by Canada for bringing eye care to developing countries

Father Pierre Labine founded VOSH Santa Cruz, a Montreal-based non-profit that relies on volunteers and donations to bring free eye care to those who can't afford it
Former Sault resident and Holy Cross priest Father Pierre Labine has been awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his work in providing eye care to developing countries.

A Holy Cross priest with ties to Sault Ste. Marie has been awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (Civil Division) for his role in bringing eye care to those less fortunate. 

Father Pierre Labine is being recognized for his work as founder of VOSH Santa Cruz, a Montreal-based not-for-profit organization that delivers free eyeglasses and eye exams to people in developing countries. The award was officially announced Jan. 29 at Rideau Hall. 

“It’s not just a one-man thing,” said Labine, when asked for his reaction to being recognized for his work. “I’ve got lots of volunteers and everything working - I don’t do this alone. I have a whole group of volunteers and people that participate with us on these eye missions."

Volunteer efforts by university students from Canada, Australia and the United States have enabled Labine to distribute more than half a million pairs of eyeglasses and provide eye exams and eye care to more than 200,000 patients throughout the world. 

Costco also collects glasses at all of its 100 optical centres in Canada and ships them to the VOSH Santa Cruz warehouse in Montreal.

“When you’re getting two or three dollars a day for a wage, before you look at spending a couple hundred dollars on a pair of glasses, you’ve got to feed your family first.” said Labine. “We put a special emphasis on kids and teenagers, so we make sure that if we don’t have the glasses with us, we actually bring the prescriptions back here and we make them here - and then I find ways of getting them back to them.”

VOSH Santa Cruz employs portable machines which enable volunteers to make eyeglasses on site.  

“We bring plastic frames, and then the machine trims the lenses to fit the new frames, so we’re able to combine glasses,” said Labine. “We try to give the best prescription we can.”

In addition to its global missions, VOSH Santa Cruz collects parts for eyeglasses and other eye care materials and ships them off to eye clinics in Guatemala, Nigeria and Haiti that have been established by VOSH International, as well as other groups around the world.  

“VOSH International has founded optometry schools in different countries to farm local doctors over there, so I also send material - eyeglass frames and stuff like that - to some of our Vosh permanent clinics,” Labine said. 

VOSH Santa Cruz was unable to travel since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, but Labine says the organization will be going to South America at the end of July. Volunteers will collect referrals and bring them back to Canada for another group that will fly from Edmonton in order to perform eye surgeries in September.

Labine expects somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 patients will receive eye care as a result. 

“All the referrals, we bring them back with us and we ship them to another group of ophthalmologists, so when they get there, they don’t have to do eye checkups - they just have to do straight surgeries, so they’re able to do three times the amount of surgeries because they’ve already got all the patients lined up,” he said. 

The former Sault resident and St. Mary’s College student still has siblings who live in the Sault, but has been living in Montreal for years since entering the Catholic community there through his parish priest. 

These days, Labine is working in the parish and in a house with seminarians, all while maintaining VOSH Santa Cruz and serving as administration at the provincial house for the Catholic community. 

“I’ve got a few things on the go,” he said with a chuckle. 

VOSH Santa Cruz has set up a GoFundMe page for monetary donations due to rising costs and a lack of fundraising opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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James Hopkin

About the Author: James Hopkin

James Hopkin is a reporter for SooToday based in Sault Ste. Marie
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