The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

August 18, 2013

Trip to Kenya changed student’s life


— At 23 years old, Erick Henderson already has some accomplishments under his belt — including an academic research paper published in a prestigious journal and a stint in Kenya, helping people with vision problems.

Henderson, who’s studying to be an optometrist, is co-author of the article “Observations on Eye Care in Lamu, Kenya,” published in the spring issue of The Journal of Global Health.

“It’s exciting that the first one I wrote got published in a prestigious journal,” he said. “It was exciting to see my name next to people from Harvard and Yale.”

While that was a thrill, helping people on the island — who are underserved in the area of eye care — was life changing for the young man.

“To put it simply, it was amazing,” he said in a telephone interview. “Helping to give someone sight, and improve their quality of life is so rewarding and humbling.”

Henderson moved from Normal to Memphis, Tenn., last week to begin studies at the Southern College of Optometry. A 2008 graduate of Danville High School, he is the son of Lon and Nancy Henderson of Danville.

He traveled to Kenya in the summer of 2011, and spent 10 days as a volunteer at the Lamu Center of Preventative Health. He and others performed reading evaluations and glaucoma checks for 340 patients and distributed 450 pairs of reading and sunglasses.

At the time, he was a student at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, majoring in biology and minoring in vocal performance. He received a bachelor’s degree in May 2012, and then did graduate students in biology at Illinois State University.

At Wesleyan, Henderson was president and founder of the Optometry Club. An anthropology professor, Rebecca Gearhart, discovered that he was an optometric technician who might use his portable optometry lens set to help people on the island. Thus, Henderson was invited to be part of the first temporary eye clinic.

In his article, he and Gearhart note there are six health facilities in Lamu Town, but none provides eye-care services. In sub-Saharan Africa, the ophthalmologist-to-person ratio is one to 1 million — a challenge that’s especially formidable in remote areas, the article states.

Reduced vision or blindness has an effect on a person’s ability to do well in school and to hold a job, as well as affecting safety and quality of life. About 80 percent of the conditions that lead to blindness are preventable, Henderson writes.

He and Gearhart also include case studies, including a 22-year-old woman who had never been able to see well, and her school work suffered. When she finally was able to see symbols on a chart with the help of glasses, she gleefully declared that she could see everything clearly for the first time in many years.

Other patients came in with eye problems that were the result of excess ultraviolet light exposure and other environmental irritants, such as sand.

Henderson said it took a semester to write the paper, as the facts had to be checked carefully. Then it took another semester to go through the editing process with the journal.

Finally, a version of the article appeared online, and Henderson gave it a final check. “It was awesome,” he said, describing his reaction to seeing the article.

Henderson is grateful to Danville individuals and groups that helped him go to Africa, including the Noon Rotary and his church, St. James United Methodist Church. Drs. Ron Serfoss and Shawn Mallady at Chittick Family Eye Care also helped support him. He had worked as a technician at Chittick’s in Danville and Savoy at one time.

Henderson said he’d like to have his own practice and return to Danville eventually, saying, “So much support has been given to me over the years.” Besides financially, people have gone out of their way to provide him opportunities so he could be successful, he said.

“I would love to be in the Danville community a few years down the road,” he said.

In the meantime, he hopes that a group at Southern College of Optometry —Student Volunteer Optometric Service to Humanity — will get involved in a summer project in Kenya. He also wants to continue his relationship with Kenya and even has a dream to get other optometrists to go there a couple of weeks at a time. If enough doctors are found, there could be a full-time clinic in Lamu, he said, adding, “That would be awesome.”

Henderson also has won awards, including the “25 under 25” award sponsored by Global Youth Service Day and which recognizes young leaders making outstanding contributions to the Bloomington-Normal community.

He also was a member of the Inner Circle, a group of 15 key members from each graduating class selected by the Illinois Wesleyan University president, and received the Senior Certificate of Achievement at Wesleyan.

In addition, he was active in numerous university activities.


To read Erick Henderson’s article, go to, click on “print issue,” Spring 2013, and click on “Observations on Eye Care in Lamu, Kenya.”