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Romero Award honors Erie optometrist Doug Villella

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Mercyhurst University Department of Religious Studies will present its 2017 Archbishop Oscar Romero Award to Erie optometrist Dr. Douglas Villella on Thursday, March 23. Dr. Villella will then speak about his work as executive director of Vision for the Poor, a nonprofit that develops sustainable eye care facilities to serve the poorest of the poor in Latin America and Haiti.

All are welcome to attend the presentation and lecture, which is free and open to the public, at 7 p.m. in the Mercy Heritage Room.

Vision for the Poor ( grew out of the Pennsylvania chapter of VOSH, Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, which initially focused on delivering short-term eye care to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The group soon determined that the best use of its resources was to develop facilities that provide the poor with permanent access to eye care. As its mission evolved, the group changed its name to Vision for the Poor in 2008.

According to the World Health Organization, 90% of the burgeoning rates of blindness (37 million blind and 124 million with low vision) are occurring in developing countries.

“People in the states, no matter how poor, have access to eye care,” says Villella. “Every five seconds someone in the world goes blind, and a child goes blind every minute, unnecessarily, because they have no access to eye services. Everyone has the right to sight. Should it really matter where they live?”

Visualiza, the first network of sustainable eye clinics, was established in Guatemala and now serves as a model for future development in other countries. Vision for the Poor has also helped build eye hospitals in Haiti, Nicaragua, Peru and Mexico, and plans to build five more before 2020.

Mercyhurst’s Romero Award takes its name from the late archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, who is remembered for his uncompromising commitment to the poor and oppressed of El Salvador. He died from an assassin's bullet on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in San Salvador, and has been declared a martyr for the Catholic faith.

This is the 26th year that Mercyhurst has presented the Romero Award, given to individuals or organizations "living the call of faith and justice in an extraordinary manner." The first award, in 1991, honored peace activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan. Since then the award has been presented to a wide range of leaders in the peace and justice movement, both in the Erie community and on the national/international stage. Previous recipients have included Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking; Sister Marilyn Lacey, RSM, founder of Mercy Beyond Borders; Sister Mary Claire Kennedy, SSJ, an outspoken crusader against human trafficking; and Sister Mary Miller, OSB, director of Erie’s Emmaus Ministries, who was honored in 2016.

For more information, contact Robert von Thaden, Jr., Ph.D., chair and associate professor of religious studies, at 824-2184.