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1 year ago
An Eye-Opening Experience with Gretchen Bleiler

1/10 Greg Beadle
OneSight Global Eye Care Clinic
Taking a break from chasing snow around the globe, top women's snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler headed to sunny South Africa last September to volunteer at the OneSight Global Eye Care Clinic sponsored by Oakley in Mamelodi, a township of a million just 50 miles north of Johannesburg. The modest Olympic medalist and four-time Winter X Games champ (she's defending her title in Aspen this January) joined a diverse group of volunteers—including opticians, licensed doctors, eyewear industry professionals, local celebs, and a handful of church-goers from Ohio—in administering free eye exams and hand-delivering prescription frames and non-prescription sunglasses to 10,000 people in need.

"I came into it with an open-mind, ready and excited to be a part of it," says the Aspen-raised halfpipe heroine. "I was totally in awe of the entire operation. Now when I go on vacation or plan trips I want to always have that volunteer component. It's so rewarding."

Check out some highlights from her inspiring adventure:

2/10 Greg Beadle
Off the Charts
As part of every OneSight clinic (175-plus have taken place in 32 developing countries since 1988), patients must complete several eye exams before receiving glasses or medication. The first is the visual acuity test.

"Here you're telling people to cover one eye (the procedure is new to them) and point in the direction the 'E' is facing on the chart," Bleiler says. "You can feel everyone's nervousness and excitement. I loved it when they really got into it, emphatically pointing and saying 'this way,' 'that way,' 'up' or 'down'."

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Looking Sharp
Few patients had phone numbers. None had an email address. Yet so many were dressed to the nines. "People showed up to the clinic wearing their best outfits. They have so much respect for themselves. They want to look good—and they did!" says Bleiler, who deeply appreciates a good sense of style.

She's been designing her own signature high-performance women's collection for Oakley since 2008 and will be debuting her forth collection at Winter X-Games in Aspen this January.

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See Breeze
"Some people had amazing eyesight, like this girl. Her smile says 'I've got this'," says Bleiler, who was happy to see young people staying on top of their optical health.

Though she didn't meet any drastic cases, she did hear about how other volunteers had to do the "count fingers test," where you ask patients how many digits you're holding up each time you take a step back, away from their face. This was necessary when people couldn't see the chart.

5/10 Greg Beadle
Read You Loud and Clear
Though Bleiler is often airborne above the halfpipe, she remains grounded. Her natural patience and humility served her well during the two long days at the clinic. Rather than rush through the task at hand—an instinctive urge when you see hundreds of people waiting on an endless line for you—she treated each patient with complete personal care.

"I tested a woman today who I could tell saw the chart, but she was confusing up with down. So I had to go over the instructions very carefully again, otherwise I could have misdiagnosed her."

6/10 Greg Beadle
Technical Difficulties
Known for landing never-done-before snowboarding tricks, Bleiler enjoys challenges. Which is why she took to the auto-refraction machine—the daunting station she called her favorite. Patients had to place their chin on a strap and look straight into this device.

"People weren't sure what to expect, whether something was going to poke them. They were blinking, moving, looking away," Bleiler says. This made it harder for volunteers to calculate their glasses prescription using this Atari-style joystick. "At the end, people would say 'bless you' or clasp their hands in gratitude. I was grateful, too! I was benefiting as much as they were."

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Strike a Pose
While roaming around the Costco-sized facility where the clinic took place, Bleiler spotted three irresistibly cute kids in school uniforms (an indication they were possibly orphans) across the room. She walked over and asked them to take their picture.

"They immediately started posing for me like they were models at a photo shoot. Sassy poses, too!" Bleiler laughs. "The little boy in the center is so GQ. Who could blame him? He was surrounded by three ladies."

8/10 Greg Beadle
The Glory Tent
After enduring three hours of long lines and multiple eye exams, patients were finally given a pair of free prescription glasses and non-prescriptive sunglasses at the last station, aptly nicknamed the Glory Tent.

"This was one of the coolest stations. You got to really see the effects of what we were all doing at the clinic," Bleiler says. "When I helped this particular woman put on her new glasses, I asked her if she could see and she replied 'Everything!' She was so obviously wowed and grateful. Her reaction was the most satisfying."

9/10 Greg Beadle
Shades of Hope
Meet Gloria. In Mamelodi, this 30-year-old woman is considered middle-aged (life expectancy plunged from 70 years to 47 in two decades). "It was heartbreaking to see her so afraid and embarrassed," says 29-year-old Bleiler of the new mom suffering from HIV and cancer (the latter is causing her legs to rot). She couldn't make it to the clinic, so Bleiler swung by her home to hand-deliver a pair of Oakley sunglasses. "It made her feel so special. She was like, 'you want to give these to me?' When she put them on, her beautiful face lit up."

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A Magic Moment
After Gloria, Bleiler and other clinic volunteers visited another HIV patient named Philemon. "I don't know who asked or brought it up, but two nurses started singing to him this amazing African song. It had this great beat you could easily clap to. At this moment, it all came together for me. I started crying," Bleiler shyly admits. "I didn't want to show him I was sad. When you're sick, it's easy to focus on the negative. But I could tell Philemon was focusing on the positive. With his eyes closed, he was taking in all the hope and support."

Learn more about OneSight at onesight.org, or watch this video of the Mamelodi clinic.

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