“It was quite out of the blue”

Team leader and student trainer at Vision Aid Overseas, Mark Esbester, tells OT  about his volunteer work for the charity, which led to him receiving an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s honours

Mark Esbester

Congratulations on your MBE. How does it feel to be recognised for your services to eye care in Africa?

It was a big surprise. I had a letter in November asking if I would be prepared to accept it and it was quite out of the blue. You’re sworn to secrecy for a while and then the news is released just before the New Year. It’s an honour and it’s nice to have Vision Aid Overseas’ (VAO) work recognised – I’m just one person and there are a lot of volunteers who have done the same thing over the years. It’s good to have the organisation recognised.

When did you start working for VAO?

I collected spectacles for VAO for many years, but my first overseas assignment was in 2005. A colleague, who works in Winchester, had phoned me at the beginning of the year and asked what I was doing in the August. I had nothing planned and he said, ‘Do you fancy coming to Uganda?’ That was my first assignment, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I have been doing it ever since.

What was the first assignment you undertook for VAO?

I was mainly doing outreach. In other words, setting up clinics in various locations in Uganda. We went to five or six different centres. Most of the work was seeing patients. In those days, VAO used recycled spectacles from this country and supplied them to people in India or Africa. These days we don’t use the recycled spectacles anymore. With the best will in the world, they were only ever the nearest thing to what somebody really needed after examining their eyes. 

We’ve also set up a large number of vision centres in Africa. These are places people can go to have an eye examination by somebody who has often been trained by VAO. They can then get spectacles made at low cost so that they are accessible for people who often cannot afford spectacles from large optometric outlets in the big cities.

What are the different roles you have when volunteering?

Each team has a leader and a deputy and I normally go as either one of those. There are different types of assignments. The outreach assignments are mainly examining people’s eyes and prescribing spectacles. That’s usually in support of an existing vision centre that has been set up. 

Another type is teaching and training assignments. For example, a team went to Ghana for a fortnight in September and was working with final year optometry students at the University of Cape Coast. We spent some time giving presentations to the students and supervising them in their clinics. For four days of the trip, we went to a nearby town with some students and set up an outreach there. That gives them an idea of how to go about setting up an outreach clinic away from their university. 

What are the main changes that you’ve seen during your time volunteering? 

We were almost entirely doing outreach clinics when I first started, but now the focus is on teaching and training. The idea is to create a more sustainable system so that when we leave we’ll have trained people to carry on the work. VAO has been instrumental in setting up optometry courses at universities in Ghana and Ethiopia, as well as the college course in Zambia for optometry technologists, who are very capable at refraction. 

What are your career highlights?

I qualified back in the 1970s and I’ve worked in hospital eye departments in Portsmouth for a number of years. In the 90s, I took over a practice in Southsea from my uncle, which I was already working in.

What’s next?

Retirement, I think! Although I have no immediate plans, I’m 64 and at that stage of my career. I’d like to do a bit more work with VAO. I usually go and help with the volunteer development programme, which is where new volunteers are given a day’s training before they can go on an assignment. We hold these two or three times a year in various venues. It’s essential for people wanting to volunteer with VAO to go and do that so that they have an idea of what they’re letting themselves in for. Also, to give them basic training on tropical eye diseases and how VAO works. It’s nice to see so many young people going to them these days as well. We also have a few older people who might have got rid of the kids and the mortgage and are looking for a new challenge in their career.