Zach Ely

Zach Ely | Cleveland, TN – Biological Sciences and Literary Studies, 2018

Zack is from Cleveland, Tennessee, and is also a recent transfer student at Vanderbilt University. Zack plans to graduate in 2018 after completing a double major in Biological Science and Literary Studies. This summer, Zack is excited to pursue service work in Accra, Ghana and surrounding villages. Zack will work with a nonprofit organization called Unite for Sight to provide volunteer support to local eye clinics. These clinics perform thousands of sight-restoring surgeries every year to impoverished Ghanaians. Zack looks forward to connecting with the people of Ghana while also increasing his understanding of their healthcare conditions.

Blog Post One:

My first week in Ghana hit me with a deluge of exciting and poignant experiences. In numbers, I can report that our mobile eye clinic traveled to three remote villages and processed an intake of over 400 patients—many of whom were blind; that I’ve observed over twenty eyesight-restoring surgeries; that I’ve performed over 150 visual acuity tests; and that I’ve seen several hundred stunningly autonomous goats (the goats here seem to go about their own business with more purpose than some people). While those statistics are exciting to reflect on, the truth is that the numbers won’t ultimately leave a lasting impression in memory but the experiences they represent will.

I’d always known humanitarian missions are a sort of perfect milieu for touching moments, but that did not prepare me for the emotional gravity that actually accompanies them. As I’ve interacted with the patients and other village locals, I’ve seen kindness emerge across the full gamut of human interaction. One memory of a patient named Joseph, who suffers from cataract blindness, comes to mind. After testing Joseph’s visual acuity and later dispensing his medicine (and cracking a few jokes with him in-between stations), I noticed him wave me over as he prepared to leave. I came and smiled as I made eye contact and noticed the sincerity through his glossy-eyed gaze (cataracts obscure the iris with a milky-gray wisp). I accepted his hands as they enveloped mine and listened as he said “Thank you. Your work is good. God smiles at you; God bless you.” While I am not religious myself, I knew the depths from which his words came and felt moved by them. I squeezed his hand with my right and placed my left on his back and pulled him in tight for a bro-hug-style embrace. I said “thank you” and told him that his words meant a lot to me. We withdrew and he departed.

Moments like this have run abundant over the past week, but I’ve noticed it’s not just the intimate ones that have a personal effect. Smaller, briefer moments are sometimes just as touching. An example came yesterday at the end of our outreach. As I finished loading boxes of eyeglasses and medication into the clinic van, I caught the sound of a small herd of sandals running in my direction. I turned to see a group of children sprinting towards me, with the small girl at the lead shouting “Obroni!” (a friendly term Ghanaians have for white foreigners). Although I was exhausted from a long work day, I greeted them with enthusiasm and high-fived each of them before they ran, giggling, on to their next objective. Although high-fives may not sound as meaningful as hugging a blind patient after giving him medicine, I took immense pleasure in the knowledge that those high-fives made the children happy and recalled the old platitude that “small acts of kindness can change the world.” If that sounds like an empty cliché, then I put forth instead that small acts of kindness can at least change someone’s world, even if just for a day or an hour.

Although I am unlikely to see those children or Joseph again, their high-fives and his words all carved a greater depth into my personal empathy for other people. Tomorrow, our team will pile into a van again and travel another hundred miles on a new outreach, and as the days pass and the outreaches continue, I know the flood of touching moments will only accelerate. As it does, I suspect that my statistics will feel less numerically distinct as my personal immersion into this culture deepens. The numbers themselves will be dwarfed by the emotional gravity of the experiences they represent, and the best thing I can do is open myself up to the awesomeness of it all as much as I can.


One Comment Add yours

  1. ed nichols says:

    Zach, I have to admit that your work in Ghana is a little personal to me. Macular degeneration runs in my family so it is only a matter of time. Do not downplay those statistics. They are extraordinary. I agree, however, that the personal stories both big and small are at least as important and something that you will always remember. Thank you for going on your trip and for sharing your thoughts about it. There will be a reception to honor the Nichols recipients on October 20th to which you will receive an invitation and I sincerely hope that you can attend so that Janice and I can thank you in person. Until then, good luck this semester and I look forward to seeing you at the reception. Ed

    P.S. Your comment “…small acts of kindness can at least change someone’s world….” reminds me of last year’s Senior Day speaker, Soledad O’Brien, and the starfish story.


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