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‘See the Lord’: Chinese American Catholic young adults help needy people see

July 24, 2015
Valerie Schmalz

Kelly Kao is no longer making a top salary as a Silicon Valley optometrist and researcher for Google Glass. Instead Kao and her friends, motivated by their Catholic faith, are using their talents to help poor people see in Taiwan, the Philippines and even California’s San Joaquin Valley.

In the past three years the Catholic nonprofit See the Lord has brought eyeglasses, and vision health care to thousands of poor people in rural areas of Taiwan, the Philippines and Sanger, California.

“I walked away knowing that God had a different path for me, knowing I was called to do missionary work at that point in my life,” said Kao, now 30. Kao decided the day her mother died in February 2011 after a nine-year battle with cancer that she had to “love big” with her life. “There were a lot of people trying to talk me out of it.”

When she quit all her jobs at age 28 in 2012, Kao was in fulltime private practice, teaching at UC Berkeley School of Optometry, and doing research for Google.

See the Lord is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, young professionals who became friends through their faith and involvement in the San Jose Chinese Catholic Mission in Santa Clara. Kao, the only one who works fulltime for the organization, receives a small stipend as chief executive officer.

“Every single person who needs prescription glasses we provide them with brand new lenses and frames. Prescription glasses, sun glasses, reading glasses – free of charge,” said Kao. Mission trip volunteers help pay for the eyeglasses handed out during their trip, said Henry Shu, chief financial officer. Local Taiwanese lens makers give discounted rates for glasses and lenses, Kao said.

“I think it is the work of the Holy Spirit. What can bring young people to do this kind of thing if it is not the Holy Spirit?” said Father Carlos Olivera, pastor of San Jose Chinese Catholic Mission.

Since 2012 when incorporation of the nonprofit was completed, See the Lord has organized 12 mission trips with three more on the calendar for 2015. All but three of the mission trips have been to Taiwan where people in the rural mountain areas have little access to vision care. This year a U.S. trip is planned to New Orleans.

The Bay Area Chinese Catholic community supports the See the Lord mission, said Kao, who grew up in San Mateo and attended St. Luke Parish in Foster City. The Mid-Peninsula Chinese Catholic Community at St. Matthew in San Mateo, where Kao’s father is in the choir, is very supportive, as are St. Clare Parish in Santa Clara, and St. Joseph in Fremont, she said.

Most of those served in Taiwan are poor children, elderly, and disabled people who find it difficult or impossible to travel the three or four hours to a town to get their eyes examined and frequently could not afford glasses if they were prescribed, Kao said. While Taiwan has national health care, that does not include vision care and optometrists are reluctant to travel to remote areas, she said.

“I was surprised by how nearsighted the children were; yet they did not even own a pair of glasses. I wondered how these children could function in daily life when they could barely see the largest shapes on the eye chart,” said volunteer Elaine Oetomo, who was part of the Taiwan March 2013 team, in a testimonial on the See the Lord website.

“People work out in the sun all day and have major sun damage or a tree branch has hit their eye and they have lost their vision,” said Jean Young, See the Lord spokeswoman.

See the Lord mission trips attract young adults, mostly Chinese Americans with some family connection to Asia, said Young. Many are not Catholic, she said.

“We have students who are interested in optometry who go on these trips. We have people who just have a heart for the mission,” said Young. The mission trip team is usually 10 people. Each person must raise the $2,500 -$3,000 for the cost of their trip, which lasts about 10 days, said Young. “They are not always Catholic, that’s fine with us. We do Mass and we do prayers together. We don’t make it a criteria that you have to be Catholic.”

“They can use their talents. It lets young students and young professionals actually serve,” Kao said.

About 1 percent of Taiwan is Catholic, Young said.

Kao’s deeply religious and loving Catholic mother is a big part of this story, because it was some comments her mother made a few months before her death from cancer that started Kao thinking.

“Her mother was like a saint, never complaining even though she was suffering,” said Young. “She said to Kelly–in Chinese of course—my one regret in life is I don’t feel like I loved big. I wished I loved on a grander scale.”

The night her mother died, Kao said she had a vision of her mother asking her to use her talents on that grander scale. The next day Kao procured the website rights for See the Lord, although she said it took more than a year to get the nonprofit up and running.

“They are great people with a dedication to the mission of the church, of Jesus,” said Father Olivera. “They are good, good Catholics.”

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