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Giving Back: The Reading Glass Project

When I was in Hanoi, I met a gallery owner who introduced me to a brilliant travel initiative called the Reading Glass Project. Mark Rapoport, who co-owns 54 Traditions gallery in Hanoi (a spot that one of our members directed me to), specializes in the crafts of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. (Read Local Legend Hanoi: Mark Rapoport.) Over the years, as he traveled into the hills of northern Vietnam looking for textiles and jewelry and handcrafts, he found that many of the older weavers could no longer work at their trade because they could not see their work up close. He began bringing them magnifying, or reading, glasses and suddenly they could resume their work. With a simple pair of inexpensive glasses, he could restore their livelihood. A friend who was visiting from New York, a few years ago was so inspired by the power of this project that she decided to expand the initiative. When Jackie Hunsicker brought fifty-three pairs of glasses to women in the foothills of the Tonkinese Alps, she had been so moved by the impact that she founded the Reading Glass Project to make it easy for other travelers to make the same kind of difference.

“It was astounding how something so small, a pair of reading glasses, could have such a profound impact on these people’s lives,” she says. Since then she has created inexpensive, virtually indestructible glasses of varying strengths that travelers can buy for a $1 a pair (the cost is tax deductible). Thousands of them have been given out in thirty-five countries. We added Brazil to the list when we went on the last day of our Brazil Indagare Insider Trip to the Santa Marta favela and gave out forty pairs. We followed Jackie’s advice and brought postcards so people could test the varying strengths. We made it clear that they were not prescription glasses for distance but merely magnifiers to be worn on the end of the nose for reading.

“I will be able to read the paper,” one older lady said. “The paper.” Word spread as we moved through the favela. Some led us into the houses of older ladies. Others came out to meet us and show us broken glasses that they had not been able to repair. “Obrigado. Obrigada.” Thank you. They all said, beaming when they hit on the right strength. In an hour or so, we had picked up a bit of Portuguese “Mais forte?” Stronger? “Bem!”  Good! But mostly we communicated with gestures and smiles. There are million dollar views in the favela but the streets are so steep and narrow that many of the older people don’t leave their homes. Even though Santa Marta favela has been hailed as one of the models of pacification by the Rio Police (a police house stands at the entrance and bullet holes are seen as signs of the past), there is still raw sewage running by the houses and chickens picking through the waste. We had met so many interesting Brazilians on our trip—from billionaire Bernardo Paz and graffiti activist Mundano to our passionate guides Flavia and Christina—but the smiles of the Santa Marta folks are the ones that I will remember most clearly. And I plan on ordering more glasses for my upcoming trips to South Africa and Bhutan. After all, as Jackie says, “Why settle for being a tourist when you could be a hero?”

To get involved and learn more, contact the Reading Glass Project.

Published onApril 9, 2014

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