Dudley Parsons has been practicing his Spanish, or as he might now say, his "Español."
After all, as the president of a nonprofit aid organization in the Dominican Republic, it makes sense that the Rochester retiree should be able to converse with the locals.
Up to now, that hasn't been the case. Parsons' trip in early March will be his fifth visit to the island of Hispañola. With each yearly trip, Parsons brings a load of refurbished eyeglasses to needy people on the island. The glasses, which come from the Wisconsin Lions Foundation, give clear sight to the poor people who live along the D.R.'s northern coast, just a short way from the country's border with its poorer island neighbor, Haiti.
"Our headquarters is on the north coast in a place called Playa Sosua, not too far from Puerta Plata," Parsons said. "Most places we travel to are within an hour's drive of Sosua."
At the headquarters, a clinic supported by Parsons' Dominican Eyes Plus, poor people are fitted with eyeglasses, sick people are driven to doctors in the city and food and care is given to those in need.
With so many poor people relying on Parsons, he decided it was time to add "Spanish speaker" to his arsenal.
"I'll be able to communicate with the clients better," said Parsons, who is in his third session of studying Spanish through Rochester Community Education. "I'll be more comfortable greeting them. Before now, my communication skills have been pretty bad."
Despite holding several college degrees, the retired engineer said he never was required to take a foreign language in college. So when a pair of high school friends who own a condo in Sosua got him involved with the clinic, he muddled through the best he could.
"Karen Conquergood, who runs the clinic — she speaks some French and Creole," Parsons said. Those two languages are prevalent among the Haitian immigrants who come to the clinic. But Parsons said he thought he'd start with Spanish, the language of the country where he will need to do business in running Dominican Eyes Plus.
A Lions Club member for 45 years, Parsons said he felt called to help the people on the island.
"We deal with the bottom 10 percent there," he said. "It's not really a Third World country, but there's definitely a huge wealth gap."
And bringing sight to those poor people can help their lives.
Dale Schroeder, facility manager at the Wisconsin Lions Foundation, in Rosholt, Wis., said bringing sight to the poor is one of the Lions' main missions.
The glasses Parsons takes with him on his yearly trip come from drop-off boxes across Wisconsin, Minnesota and other states.
"We process about 800,000 to 900,000 glasses a year," Schroeder said. Some don't get through, he said, because of bad lenses, scratched lenses or broken frames.
Once the glasses have been washed, sorted and bagged — a process that occurs at the Lions facility with help from prison labor — those refurbished spectacles get shipped to people across the country who distribute them to needy people around the world. One of them is Parsons, who takes a suitcase full of glasses to refill the clinic's supplies.
"We maintain an inventory that Karen has access to year around," he said.
Helping people with their "ojos" — eyes — makes the whole effort worthwhile, he says.
"The last time I took a grammar course was in high school," Parsons said with a laugh. "So learning Spanish grammar at my age, it's harder, there's no question about it."
The recipients — especially older women who make money from sewing — need their eyesight to survive.
"They need to be able to see their hand work," Parsons said. "So anything we can get them is better than nothing at all."
Or as he has learned to say, "Es mejor que nada."