STANFIELD, Oregon — In an interview with The Borgen Project, Dr. Scott Pike, president of Enfoque Ixcán, speaks about the mission of Enfoque Ixcán and how the organization is bringing quality eye care to a remote region of Guatemala.
About Enfoque Ixcán
Enfoque Ixcán is a nonprofit that educates, supports and equips Eye Health Promoters (EHPs) in the remote Ixcán region in northwestern Guatemala. The organization focuses on providing the resources that local EHPs need to educate and provide quality eye care to their communities.
Pike, a retired optometrist and optometric educator at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, met Pedro Chom, a sustenance farmer, on a trip to Guatemala in 1996. Chom was volunteering as a local Health Promoter, which is a person trained by the government to provide basic health care to remote areas without access to formal medical institutions. Although Chom enjoyed the job, he considered quitting because he could not read the instructions on the medicine he worked with. After returning to the U.S., Pike sent reading glasses to Chom, which allowed Chom to continue working as a Health Promoter.
Pike and Chom started Enfoque Ixcán in 1997 and the organization became a nonprofit in 2006. Chom’s volunteer position became a full-time job and he continues to work as a Health Promoter for his community. The organization now has multiple employees, including Felipe Panjoj and Carlos Quinilla, who work office hours five days a week. Pike regularly visits the region, bringing additional supplies and knowledge.
Enfoque Ixcán Services
Enfoque Ixcán’s EHPs provide “basic eye exams, eyeglasses, eye health education and access to surgical care” for members of their community. The organization aims to provide eye care to everyone, regardless of age, needs or financial situation. Patient conditions can range from a child with a serious eye infection to a middle-aged person who is beginning to experience trouble with their sight.
Visualiza, a partner of Enfoque Ixcán, is a hospital and surgical center that provides low-cost and free eye care to low-income patients. The Enfoque Ixcán EHPs travel to Visualiza with prospective eye surgery patients four to five times a year. The EHPs at the clinic can send photos to the doctors at Visualiza to determine the severity of eye issues. Panjoj and Quinilla have also traveled to Visualiza for training.
Accomplishments of Enfoque Ixcán
A significant part of providing effective eye care to the Ixcán region is teaching locals how eye care works and how it will benefit them. According to Pike, many people in Ixcán feared eye surgery and expressed hesitancy to travel a minimum of five hours to Guatemala City to undergo surgery. Some who successfully undergo surgery return to their villages to help alleviate the hesitancy and fears among those who still require surgery.
“When we got there, cataract surgery was unknown. They thought you get old, you get cataracts, you go blind and then you stay at home and your grandchildren help you move around. So we’ve taken people who probably would have died sooner had they not gotten their vision back, and could now go to the bathroom by themselves, function around the kitchen or work in the garden,” said Pike.
Until now, Enfoque Ixcán has provided almost 10,000 glasses while funding almost 900 surgeries and aiding more than 20,000 patients around the region. Rotary International gave a Global Grant to Enfoque Ixcán in 2016, allowing the organization to provide eye care training for the EHPs, expand its catalog of eyeglasses and buy up-to-date medical equipment.
Opening an Eye Care Clinic to Bring Eye Care to Remote Guatemala
Pike said that Enfoque Ixcán completed building its first eye care clinic in August 2021. The clinic, located in Playa Grande, includes up-to-date eye care technology and computers with internet access. This means that the clinic can now keep digital medical records and more effectively communicate with outside partners like Visualiza.
Pike talked about how Enfoque Ixcán has provided opportunities beyond basic eye care for both the EHPs and many patients. EHPs Panjoj and Quinilla, despite not having received a high level of formal education, now have jobs to provide an income for themselves while also helping their community. Accessible, quality eye care has allowed many Ixcán locals to continue attending school and work while engaging with their communities.
“Our goal isn’t necessarily to treat poverty and that sort of thing. It’s the side effects that this has that…fits into the poverty problem,” said Pike.
Goals of Enfoque Ixcán
Pike said that one of Enfoque Ixcán’s goals is to expand its eye health education reach. The organization wants to have EHPs teach everyone — students, teachers, community members, nurses and other Health Promoters — the details of eye health care.
“Part of the thing we’re doing is educating [people in Ixcán]and making it easier for them to become educated.” A lack of education plays a central role in widespread poverty in countries like Guatemala. “They never had any opportunities for [education]. So we’re hopefully easing them into that,” said Pike.
A primary point of the mission of Enfoque Ixcán is to provide the resources that locals need to achieve sustainability. Pike explained that the organization spends about 85% of its budget in Guatemala and focuses on buying from and hiring local people.
“My goal originally was to make this as Guatemalan as possible. If we could do the eye surgeries in Guatemala, let’s use Guatemala[‘s] resources. And so, the ultimate goal would be to be able to turn it over to everybody in Guatemala and maybe supply some funding, but nothing else; getting them to the point where they might be self-sufficient,” said Pike.
Poverty and Eye Health in Guatemala
According to data from 2020, about 0.52% of Guatemala’s population is blind, compared to 0.19% of the United States population. About 3.95% of Guatemala’s population has moderate-to-severe vision impairment (MSVI), compared to 2.02% of the United States. About 2 million people in Guatemala experience a loss of vision and three-quarters of cases of blindness among Guatemalans arise “from preventable or curable causes.”
Data in 2022 shows that more than 40% of teenagers in Guatemala are not attending school, which means a significant number of children do not make it to high school. Lack of funding, poor quality education, undertrained teachers and ineffective governmental support contribute to the low numbers of people receiving education in Guatemala.
Pike pointed out that Ixcán is a particularly poor, neglected area of Guatemala. Poverty, remoteness and little to no access to education are three major barriers to receiving eye care for people in rural villages.
Enfoque Ixcán is working to expand access and knowledge about eye care to remote Guatemala. Improved eye health means more people can pursue higher education, secure well-paying jobs and participate in their communities. Enfoque Ixcán’s services are giving impoverished Guatemalans living in the Ixcán region vital tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty.
– Melissa Hood
Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Scott Pike