It was last summer when thousands of people in Afghanistan left their possessions behind to frantically board planes for safe haven in the U.S. During the chaos of their departure, many prescription eyeglasses were among those small but vital items that were left behind.

Lions club member gives refugee an eye exam
Dr. Lance Lubach, a volunteer ophthalmologist for the Wisconsin Lions Club, and Cheryl Lubach, a Wisconsin Lions Club volunteer, give an Afghan evacuee an eye exam during an optometry clinic at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Nov. 12, 2021. U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Caitlin Wilkins, 50th Public Affairs Detachment.

Some of those fleeing had tucked them safely in a purse or a bag to carry onboard, only to see that bag tossed from the plane to make space for more people. Others dropped them from loaded arms and watched as they were trampled by the crowd of refugees fearing for their lives.

Twelve thousand six hundred of these adults and children eventually landed in a temporary home at Ft. McCoy Army base in west central Wisconsin. As the first part of the resettlement process, Lions came forward as they have for so many others in need and staged an eye screening. They wanted to help them see, just as they have on Wisconsin Lions Mission trips to Haiti and Central America for more than 30 years.

About 35 Lions from 20 or more Wisconsin clubs and two from Minnesota volunteered for each of the two four-day mission trips to the base, under the direction of Kiel Lion Steve Kraus and mission chair Past Council Chair (PCC) Bill Taubman. They performed vision screenings for more than 5,000 people, and nearly 1,300 people were fitted for prescription glasses from the Wisconsin Eyeglass Recycling Center in Rosholt, Wisconsin.

Taubman, a Shell Lake Lion who has been on many mission trips to several countries, says the service they provided was much like many others, except the refugees had so little after being displaced.

“Their story was more tragic. These were people who didn’t have anything,” he says. “They were friendly, quiet, cooperative and grateful

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Wisconsin Lions Club volunteers look for the correct prescription eyeglasses for Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy. U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Caitlin Wilkins, 50th Public Affairs Detachment.

people just trying to make a new life for themselves and their families. Their ‘wants’ in life are not too unlike ours.”

There were many lessons that Lions learned about their guests’ customs, culture, and languages, but also the logistics of organizing and supporting 13,000 people on very short notice.

Taubman says he learned exactly what Lions are capable of. “Wisconsin Lions are up to the task of fulfilling our ‘We Serve’ motto,” he says. “And we learned that when looking for ways to serve, we should always spend some time, as did Lion Kraus, thinking outside of the box.”

Krauss, who has also taken part in many mission trips, was home watching news reports about the U.S. pulling out of Afghanistan when he wondered what Lions could do to help these people – many of whom were allies who had helped the U.S. He contacted Taubman, and within three days they were making plans with the Department of Homeland Security to meet at Ft. McCoy, a few hours from both of their homes. Within three more months, their mission was complete.

Lions club member gives eyeglasses to refugee
Sandra Bresier, a Lions Club volunteer, hands an Afghan evacuee a pair of glasses. U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Caitlin Wilkins, 50th Public Affairs Detachment.

“The most difficult part was coordinating the effort,” says Krauss, the Lions Afghanistan Eyeglass Mission Coordinator. Many hours were spent anticipating the needs of their guests and the volunteers. Even the traditional eye chart needed a transformation as the giant “E” means nothing to those who speak a different language.

Afghans’ stories shared with their American hosts, in English or with the aid of a translator, illustrated the complexity of their situations. Many expressed sadness about family and friends left behind. One little girl shed tears of joy over her new shoes. She had never had shoes before. A group of more than 100 female university students had been at risk simply because they were female and pursuing an education in Afghanistan. Once in Wisconsin, Homeland Security helped the women connect with universities in the U.S.

“The comments from the guests we served were that they were very pleased. Some were taken to tears,’’ said Bob Overlander, the non-government organization coordinator who worked with the Lions. “It was a very heart-satisfying service and the Lions did a great job.”

The last Afghan evacuee guests left Ft. McCoy on Feb. 15, ending Operation Allies Welcome on the post. But the stories they heard and the smiles they shared will, of course, never leave.