A Day In The Life Of The 'Ver Bien' Programme
It's 7.30 a.m. on Friday, June 3, a bright, fine morning in Morelia, the state capital of Michoacán. My Ford Explorer roars into life. I have on board two passengers and 199 pairs of glasses. The 'Ver Bien' programme is on the road again.
'Vámonos,' says the vivacious 48-year-old Licenciado Elizabeth (Bety) Romero Mejia. Bety is the state co-ordinator of the programme ' Ver Bien Para Aprender Mejor', which means 'See Well to Learn Better.' It began two years ago and aims to give free glasses to every pupil in Michoacán's public primary and secondary schools who have visual problems, and whose families can't afford the glasses. The need is great, Bety tells me.
My other passenger is 51-year-old Gustavo Cancino Velasco, Bety's assistant, who takes care of much of the technical details. Usually they travel in a vehicle provided by the state education secretariat, but today I offered them the use of mine.
Soon we are on the motorway speeding south-west. We have to deliver the glasses to two localities in western Michoacán. It's an all-day trip, so there's no time to waste. The air freshens as we climb towards Uruapan, a city an hour away.
The programme, which has state, federal and some private sector support, is ambitious. It's estimated that 12.7 per cent of the pupils in the Michoacán schools have some visual weakness, causing many to either fail their studies or leave school early. This is what the programme aims to correct, and it means getting glasses to more than 114,000 boys and girls in all the urban and rural zones. Each child with bad sight is individually tested by a qualified optometrist, then the glasses are made specifically for them, at no cost to them or their families.
Already, the programme has delivered glasses to about 14,000 boys and girls at more than 864 schools, including 183 different schools in indigenous communities. But there is still a long way to go.
We reach Uruapan in an hour, but as we leave the city the road becomes narrow and winding, and farm trucks and potholes slow us down. We are still climbing, but I enjoy being amongst the pines and cedars and avocado plantations. Two hours later, after passing through Los Reyes, we finally reach the little town of Tocumbo, population 11,300, altitude 1600 metres. Tocumbo is a picturesque town, famous for its production of mescal, made from the maguey plant, and also the delicious recipes of the local brand of ice cream. The maguey crop is harvested every two months, except during the rains. Each crop of about 80 magueys produces about 200 litres of mescal.
At the José Maria Morelos school, we are greeted by the Municipal President, Licenciado Roberto Andrade Fernandez, and the chief inspector of schools in sector 16, Profesor Aurelio Tellez Reyes. At 26 years old, Roberto Andrade is one of Mexico's youngest municipal presidents - and after 41 years of Partido Revolucionario Institucional presidents in Tocumbo, he is the first president from the Partido de la Revolución Democratica.
A ripple of excitement runs through the 300 or so pupils who line the school quadrangle as the canvas 'Ver Bien' sign is set up in front of the table where the dignitaries sit, waiting for the presentation of the glasses. Amongst these are teachers, parents, and representatives from the DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia). Profesor Tellez whispers to me there is a great need for social programmes such as 'Ver Bien' because of the poverty in the zone.
Bety and Gustavo have now laid out the bundles of glasses on the table, grouped according to their schools. But first, there is the civic ceremony. When all is ready, three boys and three girls in bright red cardigans and jerseys and navy skirts and trousers march forward and present the Mexican flag. The national anthem is sung.
That concluded, Bety is introduced to the audience. In a stirring speech, she says that to follow the road of education, children must attend school and learn well, but they will not be able to do this if they have health problems in general, or deterioration of their eyesight in particular.
'For this reason,' she says, 'the Ver Bien programme was initiated. Let's work together to reduce school desertion and improve the academic performance of pupils in the state of Michoacán.'
When the applause has died down, a line of boys and girls come up to the table, one by one - some a little shy, others proud and confident - to shake hands with the adults and receive their glasses. There are 52 pairs in all to give out, 23 to José Maria Morelos school, 16 to Liberación, 7 to General Lázaro Cárdenas, 5 to Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez and 1 to Melchior Ocampo.
Returning to their friends and their parents, the children laugh and shout as they try on their new glasses. It's clearly a happy day for all of them. For us, it's nearly one o'clock and we have to push on. After some hasty refreshments, we say our farewells, board the Explorer again, and double back on our route to the town of Periban. Periban is larger than Tocumbo, some 26,000 inhabitants, and is about 27 kms away.
A crowd of about 400 parents and children, buzzing with expectation, is already awaiting us in a huge Salon de Fiestas. Once more the cartons of glasses are unpacked and set up at the table mounted on a stage at the back of the hall.
While Bety and Gustavo are busy meeting the local dignitaries, I reload my camera and chat with some of the locals. They tell me that a number of children in the district have eye problems due to playing amongst the ashes after cane fields are burnt off, and also from some contamination in the air from the two sugar factories in the district.
Soon the ceremonies are under way, though. Drums bang, bugles blow, the national anthem rings out again and the flag is presented. Then a girl pupil declaims a dramatic poem, and this is followed by folk-dancing, Vera Cruz style, with a group of seven pretty girls in flowing white costumes whirling around the stage to traditional music. The dancers are applauded enthusiastically.
After receiving official speeches of welcome, Bety speaks from the microphone, outlining the Ver Bien programme once again. Then the children come up onto the stage to receive their glasses. It's a big order for Periban: 147 smiling boys and girls from 11 primary schools receive their new glasses.
All too soon, it seems, our day's business comes to an end. There have been only two glitches: one pair of glasses was found to be have a lens broken, and another was a bad fit for a boy with a broad face. No problem: Gustavo took back the glasses and will see that they are quickly replaced.
We are hungry by now, but the locals have thought of everything. They take us to a restaurant called El Campesino - where I had one of the most delicious steaks I've ever eaten. I can thoroughly recommend El Campesino.
'Vámonos,' says Bety once again - so after farewells to all our new friends and acquaintances, we climb back into the Explorer. At 6.30 p.m., 11 hours and 431 kilometres later, we cruise back into Morelia. It's been a really rewarding day.