Snapshot Interview:
Dr. Mel Muchnik

By Abigail Gonsalves, OD

Get inspired and learn a little bit more about your fellow VOSH-Illinois volunteers.

This month we are talking to Dr. Mel Muchnik

Dr. Mel Muchnik received his B.S. in psychology and M.A. in Radio and Television at the University of Maryland. He served for four years as an officer in the U.S. Navy on board destroyers in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Red Sea. He then joined the faculty of the University of Denver where he later received his Ph.D. in Communications and Media.

Dr. Muchnik, who has a PhD in communications, is Professor Emeritus and a founding faculty member and administrator for Governors State University in Illinois. Dr. Muchnik is also Chair Emeritus of the National University Technology Network.

For the last 11years, Mel and his wife Janet have been involved with VOSH, or Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, one of the largest volunteer eye care organizations in the world with its 88 chapters globally. Mel has been on 14 VOSH missions, or clinics, including Bolivia four times, Cameroon in west Africa, Grenada, Guatemala, San Juan, New Orleans, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.) As a lay volunteer, he has seen more than 25,000 patients in these clinics. From 2012-2019, he served on the VOSH/International Board of Directors chairing its communications team and has produced videos for VOSH now in broad distribution.

Mel’s voice has been heard at numerous running events including as the lead finish line announcer at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, one of the world marathons majors. He is also the voice of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra where he served as President of the Board and was appointed Life Director in 2016. He also has been heard previously as a journalist on National Public Radio and the Voice of America.

How does one describe a first VOSH mission experience? Anticipation, inspiration, selflessness, tears, laughter, fatigue, renewal, extraordinary are only a beginning.

What motivated you both to initially become involved in VOSH?

For years, our dear friends, Sol and Marilyn Tannebaum, had been inviting us to volunteer to go on a VOSH mission. Regaling us with stories of travel off the beaten path and the incredible need for eye care in areas of world population with little, if any, access, or resources for eye care, joining the effort via VOSH was compelling. Dr. Tannebaum was very involved with ICO and early on with VOSH-IL. He participated in many VOSH missions/clinics on several continents. VOSHers enthusiasm and dedication are hard to resist. And it was something I had intended to do once I retired from my university faculty and administrative position in communications and media.

The Tannebaums recommended I go on my first VOSH mission with Natalie Venezia who was to lead a VOSH-IL mission to Bolivia in 2010. Some of the clinic team left from Chicago, uniting with the whole team of 23 gathering in Miami for the connecting flight. I knew no one, but by the time the VOSH team landed in Bolivia enduring friendships and VOSH commitments began.

How long have you been active in VOSH IL and what has motivated you to stay involved all these years?

That first VOSH trip was unbelievably rewarding and incredibly motivating. As a result of our combined efforts, the VOSH Illinois team was able to treat 2,200 patients in just four days. We were exhausted but gratified that we could help so many.

How does one describe a first VOSH mission experience? Anticipation, inspiration, selflessness, tears, laughter, fatigue, renewal, extraordinary are only a beginning.

All are part of the VOSH mission paradigm in geographic locations that are both challenging and inspiring on so many levels. The medical and cultural rewards are seemingly endless.

On that first VOSH mission, I found a place that had speed bumps on a two-lane toll road. Perhaps that’s a metaphor, both literally and figuratively, but as those who have been on a VOSH mission know, that could describe many a VOSH challenge. With VOSH Illinois in Bolivia there was that, but so much more. From first timers to some with as many at 40 plus missions, the team bonded by the time we landed first in La Paz, the highest capital in the world and a city above tree line (the airport is over 4,000 meters altitude or over 13,000 feet) then on to the lowlands of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

How could I not be motivated?

That was the first of four missions to Bolivia. In all I have participated in 14 clinics overall serving as an actual total of 25,000+ patients in Latin America and Africa.

Natalie later recruited me to serve on the VOSH/International (V/I) Board, the coordinating Board for the 90 odd chapters worldwide. There I wound up working on various committees but focusing on building communications platforms and materials, supporting V/I leadership, and building a communications team responding to requests. I served on the V/I Board for 7 years.

What advice would you give to student ODs who are interested in being involved with VOSH -IL?

This is an amazing opportunity for life experiences that add not only personal but professional development and great personal satisfaction. Become active in SVOSH and do go on one or more clinics. You’ll see more of the world than you ever imagined. And you will see more cases and a variety eye disease than you could possibly encounter in school.

VOSH gives students concentrated hands on experience that will serve them well in studies, clinics and in practice. AND plan on continuing and make time for part of your new career activities to include a VOSH mission yearly as a practicing OD. It is rewarding, gratifying, and needed.

What have been your greatest accomplishments in VOSH International as a volunteer in general?

I’m not an optometrist, but you learn so much about eye care working with the team. And I am proud that with VOSH/International and the VOSH-IL clinics I was able to study the epidemiology and eye care in faraway places and taking the written and oral tests to become a Fellow of VOSH International and add FVI after my name. For VOSH/International we built a following on social media exceeding our initial goals. A goal of 1,000 followers on Facebook attracted over 4,000 plus. I recruited what became a well-functioning Communications team at V/I for other media platforms including Instagram and Twitter and assisted in our website development with Natalie Venezia who now administers. I played a role in committees developing VOSH/Corps and other programs sending new and retired ODs to new and fledgling optometry schools in such places as Nicaragua, Vietnam, and Ghana.

But most of all, is working with teams of dedicated selfless individuals in so many in countries well off typical tourist paths to help thousands to gain or regain lives impossible with impaired vision. And most rewarding of all was “the smile” when youngsters try on a first pair of glasses, and young students who were classified as “stupid ” and relegated to the back of a classroom suddenly and dramatically begin to read with their newfound sight. They just could not see the blackboard.

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’m retired and busier than ever. Until recently I was the announcer for many running events including 19 years as the finish line announcer for the Chicago Marathon where I’ve announced three world records. As a Life Director of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, I’m involved in an abundance of activities including backstage and occasionally on stage announcing for concerts and events.

My wife Janet and I travel out of the country two or three times a year including visiting one of our sons who lives in Japan (pre and hopefully post pandemic). And we are frequent theater, music, film, and gallery attendees. Then there are four grandchildren including 15-year-old twins in Japan, a granddaughter in a doctoral program on the east coast and a grandson at the University of Illinois in Champaign in his junior year. AND I play at golf when Illinois weather allows. 

Do you have any heroes? Why?

Not any one hero really.

My current heroes are those who have worked so hard in such difficult circumstances to keep us afloat during covid: the hospital workers, the people in stores and service areas. Also, political leaders and individuals who work to save the planet and protect humanity.

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