By Abigail Gonsalves, OD
Get inspired and learn a little bit more about your fellow VOSH-Illinois volunteers.
This month we are talking to Natalie Venezia
Ms. Venezia is a retired attorney and was a partner with a law firm in San Diego, California. Ms. Venezia obtained her JD from the University of San Diego in San Diego, California and her BS degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Ms. Venezia also holds a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from The University of San Diego and a Certificate in the Spanish Language from University of California (Ext), San Diego.
Community service and volunteerism have always played an important role in Ms. Venezia’s personal and professional life. Since 2001, Ms. Venezia has led or participated in about 30 international and local VOSH Clinic trips with VOSH-Illinois and other VOSH chapters. Since May 2007, Ms. Venezia has served as a member of the VOSH/International Board, as Board Secretary, as Board Administrator, and as the Executive Director (2013-2018). Ms. Venezia continues to serve VOSH as the Chair of the Website Development Committee. Since 2002, Ms. Venezia has also led or participated in medical missions for Operation Rainbow, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide free reconstructive surgery for children with cleft deformities. She lives in Del Mar, California, but has been a member of VOSH-IL for 20 years.
“No one goes on two VOSH trips. You either go on your first one, learn it’s not for you and that’s it. Or you just keep on going on VOSH trips! That’s what happened to me.“
What motivated you to initially become involved in VOSH/INT? How long have you been active in VOSH/INT and/or VOSH-IL and what has motivated you to stay involved all these years?
Mine is a story of three generations of Venezia women who have been serving VOSH continuously for 30 years.
Beginning in the early 90s, my mother, Marietta Venezia, had been going on VOSH trips with her close friends Dr. Sol and Marilynn Tannebaum. She had always mentioned these trips as gratifying, but “a lot of hard work.” Of course, being her daughter, I thought, “Oh right, how exhausting can they really be?”
In 2000, my husband, young daughter and I had just returned from living in Venezuela, and I had learned a bit of Spanish, so my mom suggested I accompany her on a VOSH-IL trip to Oaxaca, MX, led by Dr. Al Rosenberg. I did, and it made a lasting impact on my life. Not only was I overwhelmed with admiration for the VOSH volunteers and what they achieved, but, yes, I was EXHAUSTED every single evening! That first VOSH experience led to a lifelong affair with VOSH and its mission to provide free, quality eyecare to those in need.
My daughter, Annie Sager, started coming with me on the trips when she was about 10 years old (she’s now 25) and has been on about 10 VOSH trips. My husband Paul has also been on a multitude of trips and supported us throughout.
Since then, I have participated in about 30 VOSH international and domestic VOSH clinics.
Someone once told me: “No one goes on two VOSH trips. You either go on your first one, learn it’s not for you and that’s it. Or you just keep on going on VOSH trips!” That’s what happened to me.
What have you learned from being involved in VOSH?
Volunteering with VOSH started as a way for me to give back to the eye care community. I was born with ~ 20/300 vision, which deteriorated as I grew older to about ~20/800 and have worn glasses or contacts my whole life. I have always been aware of how a simple pair of glasses can change one’s life and the opportunities available to you. Then, through VOSH, I saw what a direct impact a dedicated group of humanitarians can have on those in need. I think that is what really hooked me. I observed the impact on communities as a whole, and the individuals who moved mountains to come to the eye care clinics for a pair of glasses. Then of course, there was the special lifelong relationships I have developed through VOSH, both with the local volunteers and the VOSH volunteers. And then to top it off, all those folks are so humble! No one wanted to be in the limelight. They weren’t there to be on TV or radio or make a speech or shake hands with the mayor. They were there to provide free, quality eye care for those in need. That was humbling, and I wanted to emulate them.
What have been your greatest accomplishments as a part of VOSH-IL or VOSH/INT?
After a few years as a lay volunteer, I went on a VOSH trip with the wonderful Dr. Gary Blackman and realized that since I couldn’t treat patients of course, I could be helpful by freeing up the organizing OD to treat patients while I do the tasks such as obtain lunch and drinks and toilet paper and candy and supplies (and beers for after clinic), etc. That eventually morphed into planning and leading the clinic trips, which has been quite gratifying. As a lawyer, I am naturally assertive and as a mother, I love to take care of people, so it worked out.
Then, somewhere along the line, I became involved in VOSH/International. (I owe that to Dr. Sandra Bury) I served on the Board of Directors, served as the Board Secretary, and eventually became the Executive Director (ED) of V/I. I feel that, working with the various V/I Presidents, we moved VOSH from towards developing a model of sustainability in delivering quality eye care. It’s important to educate and empower others to provide eyecare in their own countries and V/I has become successful in implementing various educational and clinical programs designed to do that.
Also, a major goal of mine while ED was to increase communication and collaboration among and between the VOSH chapters and V/I. That is a challenge, but it must be a priority, I believe.
What do you see VOSH/INT’s accomplishments or goals in the next 5 years?
I see VOSH as becoming an organization with increasing influence on the world stage of nonprofit organizations which provide free quality eyecare. Its goal is to be instrumental in developing sustainable clinics and teaching local optometrists to provide the services themselves. As V/I develops teaching clinics and schools of optometry and curriculum to educate those in countries where optometry is still a new profession, VOSH volunteers can work in those clinics and schools to provide a cohesive, collaborative, and sustainable relationship with other optometrists, organizations, governments, and patients.
What do you see as VOSH-INT’s biggest challenges in the next 5 years and how to address them?
Data gathering. The world today is a place where data rules. If VOSH and its chapters desire grants, supplies, and other support to achieve our goal of eliminating preventable blindness, then we need funding and to obtain funding, we need data. That is true on both the chapter and international levels. I encourage VOSH-Il and all chapters to report data to V/I which will in turn provide valuable information and/or funding back to the chapters
What advice would you give to student ODs who are interested in being involved with VOSH?
JUST DO IT! You will never regret it.
And I highly recommend you go on trips where there are a sufficient amount of practicing ODs so that you can experience a lot of different approaches to pathology and treatment. You will see conditions that don’t exist anymore in the USA or Canada.
My most fervent advice is to be respectful to everyone- especially the patients. Many have walked for days to get to you, many have waited for hours to be seen and this is an important event in their lives. Speak, act and dress professionally – you may see yourself as still in school, but they don’t – to them, you are the professional. And remember you are representing your country’s optometrists and your country in general.
Would you like to add anything else about your experiences with VOSH?
I have had the privilege to work alongside some of the most talented, smart, compassionate, and humble people who are VOSH volunteers, both in VOSH/International and VOSH-Illinois. They are some of the busiest, yet somehow, they find time to serve others in need. It is a beautiful characteristic, and I am always in awe of them.
Do you have any heroes? Why?
My mother. She was a teacher in the public schools in Park Forest, IL for 35 years and was always compassionate, kind, understanding with a positive attitude and a great sense of humor. She and Marilynn (Tannebaum) were professional storytellers, so she was always able to entertain, even if she couldn’t speak the language.
My daughter because she is so much like my mother, but in a hip way.
And my husband, because without his support and encouragement, I never would have had the freedom to devote my time and our funds to VOSH.
Do you work? Retired? What else do you do other than VOSH related activities? What do you do in your spare time? What do you do for fun?
I am retired, but am looking for my next career opportunity! Not sure what that will be yet. So, in the meantime, I read, swim, hike, golf, garden, ski and generally pester my adult daughter, who is a Speech Language Pathologist. My husband and I are in training again to walk the Camino in Northern Spain. And I am anxiously awaiting the opening up of a safe and healthy world, so we can start serving others through VOSH.
How have you been volunteering during COVID?
My husband and I volunteered regularly at the COVID vaccine clinics in 2021 and I volunteered as a poll worker in 2020.
VOSH clinics were understandably on hold during that time. I feel it is critical we wait until COVID and its strains are under control and that we have achieved herd immunity or significantly vaccinated global communities before we travel for VOSH.
Please free to add any other comments that you would like.
For 20 years, VOSH has been a major part of my and my family’s life. I have met lifelong friends through VOSH and we have shared frustrations, disappointments, delays, bus breakdowns, volcanos, earthquakes, dust storms, translation woes, anger, relief, unfamiliar food and drink, and food poisoning. But we have also shared laughter, wonder, medical opinions, prescriptions, advice, dignity, practical jokes, dreams, gratification and pure pride at what we have accomplished as a team of dedicated VOSH volunteers providing free, quality eye care to those in need. I cherish these experiences and the friends I have made through VOSH. I hope you do too.
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