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Giving the gift of sight has unexpected rewards
by Elizabeth Willoughby

After 14 days, a man gets a profession for the first time in 40 years. But it is LMU student Jakob Schillinger who feels benefited by the radical change in the other man's life.

When LMU student Jakob Schillinger began sharing his knowledge with freshmen on Facebook, the response was immediate and, to his surprise, instantly satisfying. Jakob was answering basic questions, such as exam structure and specific professors' main focuses, as well as encouraging demotivated students not to give up their studies.

This was his first contribution to random peoples' lives without expecting anything in return. Jakob liked it and wanted more, so when he heard about a project being launched that would provide eye glasses in developing countries, he signed on.

"Martin Aufmuth's One Dollar Glasses project was exactly what I was looking for," says Jakob. "It tackled the fundamental need to treat the visually impaired affordably and combined the machine he invented that produces the glasses with a simple but effective business model. Being able to see allows people to learn, and therefore able to work and feed their families."

In March, Jakob and two other students from Enactus, an organization that provides the administrative structures for social entrepreneurial projects, joined Aufmuth in Africa for 2 weeks. They went to teach 19 men and women from Rwanda and Kenya how to use the all-mechanical machine, basic knowledge on optics and how to run a business. While their hands hurt at first from the bending of the steel wire to make the glasses frames, Jakob was impressed with their discipline and speed of learning.

Down to earth

Days began with a water bucket shower and 7 a.m. toast and tea before training, and ended at 5:30 followed with dinner out on the grass, maybe a walk to the nearby village, and sleeping in a big room on mattresses on the ground.

"It was all very simple but I enjoyed the peace of mind that came with it. We worked 9-10 hours a day but it never felt like working. We were seeing steady progress and time was flying. Everywhere we went people waved at us and wanted to meet us, such immense openness and hospitality."

Back in Germany, Jakob saw things from a new perspective: "For the first time I really noticed how developed our country is with the subway, twenty-story houses and running water in my kitchen. I missed the open communication even between complete strangers in Africa, and realized that I needed very little to be happy, but I also appreciated the things I had been taking for granted in Germany."

The Rwanda project's success led to another one in Burkina Faso in July and Bolivia in September, both of which Jakob attended. One trainee in particular made a profound impact on him. A polio victim since childhood, Souleymane walks on his hands and is an outcast of society. Though always at the top of his class, the now 40-year-old never had a job. After 19 years of searching he was losing hope.

"From day one Souleymane was one of the best trainees," says Jakob. "He asked a lot of questions, trying to understand the process instead of just copying the movements. At the end of the 14 days he received a machine as a loan to start his own business. For the first time in his life this man had a profession and a reason to get up in the morning. I will never forget his shining eyes when I told him that he could continue to work with the project. 'Merci, merci beaucoup Monsieur Jakob. I'm the happiest man in Burkina Faso today.' It was the most impacting experience for me to see how only two weeks of hard work could so radically change a person's life."

"If we don't see our responsibility in serving those in need, who should?"

Jakob feels it is the duty of the privileged to help those not lucky enough to be born in a developed country, and he's studying psychology to understand people so that he can help them with the problems they face. His participation in these projects this year has been educational in a practical way, but also deeply fulfilling.

"I'm definitely thinking about pursuing this work as a career. We will see what the future brings."

Originally published at insightLMU, December 2013
www.EinDollarBrille.de

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