What distinguishes those who go on vacation to live it up, escape from the world and just relax and those who really open their eyes and see the place they have visited?

This story takes place in Mazatlán and later in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. If you Google Mazatlán this is what you will find: “Mazatlán is a Mexican resort town along the Pacific shoreline in the state of Sinaloa. Sandy beaches line its 21km-long malecón (13.5-mile boardwalk), and it’s renowned for big-game fishing. In its Centro Histórico, or Old Mazatlán, 19th-century landmarks include the performance hall Teatro Ángela Peralta and the towering Immaculate Conception basilica. The modern district of Zona Dorada is known for nightlife and hotels.”

Maricela Radke adjusts glasses on a young girl in Mazatlán. She and her husband, Dr. Armand Radke, formed a nonprofit organization called Eyes for Mexico after a vacation to Mazatlán in 2001 opened their eyes to a need for glasses for the poor in Mexico. Contributed photo

It sounds like the perfect winter getaway. But for Dr. Armand Radke (an optometrist/ophthalmologist), and his wife Mari, their winter vacation in Mazatlán, turned into a life’s mission to help people in Mexico who were poor improve their sight and their lives.

Their story begins on a winter trip to Mazatlán in 2001 that they took with another couple.

On the way from the airport to the resort,  they noticed the extreme poverty in the poorer parts of town. In these red zone districts, travel advisories may range from level 2 to 4, with level 4 being the highest level or do not travel.  People in these areas live in small cinderblock homes 100-150 square feet. The government provides these houses, but they have no doors, no roof and no windows. They make due with what they can find or scavenge to complete them.

In Mexico, 5 percent of the people are wealthy, and 95 percent are poor, and there is little or no middle class. This is the view most people see from the windows of their cab to the beach.

At the beach one day in Mazatlán, Mari and Armand watched a young man who found glasses laying on the shore that someone had either lost or they had washed ashore. The man was delighted and excited to find these glasses. Mari and Armand were curious and went to him and asked him what he was doing. In Spanish he told them he needed glasses but could not afford them and was happy that he found this pair. But of course the chances of those glasses working for him were very slim.  Through talking to this person, the couple learned that there were no programs to help the poor with glasses. A pair of glasses might take a person’s whole income for one month as there is no medical assistance.  Dr. Radke and Mari decided that they needed to find a way to help and Eyes for Mexico was conceived.

Eldon Bergman, the governor of the Lions Club in Detroit Lakes, learned of their intention to help. They reached out to Lions Club International in Mexico, in Mazatlán and joined it with the Detroit Lakes Club. One of global causes of Lions Club International, inspired by Helen Keller, has been to help people see. It took four years for them to figure it out. They first had to raise money for instruments, transportation while there, and the shipping of the glasses. The Lions Club already had been collecting used glasses for distribution to other countries in need. After they collect them at the various drop off points they send them to a correctional institute in Wisconsin, where inmates figure out the prescription, package them and label them.Then they are sent on to Mexico,  so they are available for Dr. Radke and fellow workers from the Lions Club where they hold their eye clinics.

At first, they were apprehensive about how it would work and how many people they could handle. But the Lions Club members in Mexico welcomed them with open arms and came through with providing radio spots, TV coverage and even a welcome from the mayor. Eye clinics have been set up in community centers, churches, schools and universities. They screen people for glasses and other eye issues. They trained a team of people to help them from both the United States and Mexico. In 2009 they added another location in Cabo San Lucas. Now they go twice a year for two weeks each time,  to Mazatlán in January and Cabo San Lucas in March. In Cabo San Lucas they serve from 900 to 1,100 people and Mazatlan 1,000 to 1,500. That was 18 years ago and they have still been going strong every year adding more and servicing more people.

Helping people see again can be life changing.  Once, a young girl, around age 17, came to the clinic for glasses. She could barely see as far as her outstretched arm. They fitted her with a pair of new glasses, and it opened up a whole new world to her. Being able to see better changed her life. In another story there was a lady in her 50s that was suffering from farsightedness. Dr Radke said, “All she needed was a simple pair of cheap readers.” The woman was ecstatic and said, “Now I will be able to sew again, so I can feed my family.”

A family affair

At first, the eye clinics were just conducted by Armand and his wife, but soon they grew to include their two children, Brittany and Phillip.  The children have been coming with their parents since they were young, Brittany was in 11th grade and Philip was in 9th grade. They grew up spending their family vacations doing mission work. The family has  developed friendships in Mexico, and they never fail to get their share of blessings from the people. Dr. Radke said he has never felt like he and his family were not safe while doing this work. Only once were they stopped by military police on their way back to the resort, but that was merely to check on his well-being.

Their son, Philip has carried on the family tradition of becoming a doctor and focuses on  eye surgery. Now with his help and others, Eyes for Mexico plans on offering eye surgeries in Mexico. To do this, they had to meet with doctors from the University of Minnesota who helped them connect with met with doctors/hospitals/directors and owners of hospitals in Mexico. They plan on doing cataract surgeries and other simpler eye surgeries. This will really help fulfill the Lions’ Mission (and Helen Keller’s) by helping the blind see. They hope to get this portion of their work started either next year or for sure the year after. In addition to their son helping out, Mari and Brittany started a dance company to teach dance while they are in Mexico.

Back row: Mazatlan Lions (names unknown) with front row: (L to R) Maricela Radke, Dr. Armand Radke, Dr. Joy Quitberg and Shawn Quitberg from the Detroit Lakes Lions Club. Contributed photo

Who is Dr. Radke

Armand was raised on a farm in southwest Minnesota in the small town of Tracy. His family were farmers, and they raised laying hens. At a young age, Armand learned from his father to work hard, as most farm kids do. From his mother, a head nurse at a nursing home, he and his brother learned the value of education. His mother encouraged them to get as much education as they could. Instilling these values paid off as both he and his brother became doctors. His brother became a military doctor. Armand, through scholarships and working while he was in college, graduated from Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota, with a degree in biology, chemistry and health. His goal was to be a cardiologist so he applied and was accepted to the University of Houston. He started out working in eye research and found he liked it and changed his focus to optometry and ophthalmology.

During his time, at the University of Houston, he met a young woman from Texas, Mari who majored in physical education and dance. He said he courted her for several years before she agreed to go out with him and later marry him. Mari was from Loretta, Texas, right across the border from Mexico. She was fluent in Spanish, as most of the children were who lived on the border. After Armand finished his degree and became a doctor, the couple got married. Armand was offered a position in Detroit Lakes.

Dr. Radke said, “Detroit Lakes felt like home from day one and that was 38 years ago.” In his practice in Detroit Lakes, he concentrates on eye diseases and the clinic emergency room, to assist if someone’s eyes are hurt.

Ambassador of Goodwill Award

In April 2017, Dr. Radke was honored with two prestigious awards from Lions Club International: The Ambassador of Goodwill Award and the International President’s Award for excellence of service. The latter was awarded “in recognition of outstanding achievements in service to humanity” and is one of the highest the organization can give. Only about three dozen people in the world have received it. Of course, Armand credits his wife Mari with the award and said, “They had to choose only one person to give it to, but we both deserved it.”

As the work continues, Dr. Radke hopes to be able to continue going to Mexico and helping for at least 10 more years. He explained that anyone can do what he did and find a way to help others, and there is a lot of need.  “Find a thing that is in your ability, then find a way to do it,” he said. Prayer and patience, helps too.”

The Lions Club of Detroit Lakes/Mazatlán/Cabo San Lucas will continue their work. If you would like to help, you can donate your old eyeglasses.

If you would like to donate money to help them with the next steps, for example purchasing instruments and expenses needed for surgery, you can send your donations to: Eyes for Mexico, 1044 Summit Avenue, Detroit Lakes, MN, 56501.

If you would like to donate your time and come on one of the mission trips contact Dr. Radke at Armand.Radke@sanfordhealth.org