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While volunteering out of state at a mobile medical clinic that provides free care for those in need, Ann O'Heir said she came across a woman crying.

She stopped to ask what was wrong, and the woman told her she had been unable to work because her vision was so bad she couldn't fill out job applications. She received an eye examination during the clinic and was overcome with emotion as she prepared to walk out the same day with new eyeglasses free of charge.

"It changes people's lives," O'Heir said of the free clinics provided by Remote Area Medical.

O'Heir, a registered nurse who serves as CEO of the Visiting Nurse Association of Northwest Indiana, has volunteered at six RAM clinics during the past two years and is now working independently of the VNA to bring one to Northwest Indiana, which would be the first in the state.

"Why else are we here?" she responded when asked about her commitment to the free clinic. "We're supposed to help people."

Clinic has star roots

The RAM program was established in 1985 by Stan Brock, one-time co-host of the popular television wildlife series, "Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom."

"My vision for Remote Area Medical developed when I suffered a personal injury, while living among the Wapishana Indians in Guyana, South America," Brock says on the group's website. "I was isolated from medical care, which was about a 26-day journey away.

"I witnessed the near devastation of whole tribes by what would have been simple or minor illnesses to more advanced cultures," he said. "When I left Guyana, I vowed to find a way to deliver basic medical aid to people in the world’s inaccessible regions."

The nonprofit organization, which relies on volunteers and contributions, has staged a total of 927 clinics (72 last year), most in the United States, and has provided care to 740,000 people, said RAM media relations specialist Robert Lambert.

This amounts to $120 million in free care, he said. 

Most of the clinics are held on weekends and serve an average of 750 people, he said. All services are free, and no one is questioned about income or other finances.

Many who take part work full-time jobs, Lambert said.

"It's not all destitute people that are there," O'Heir said.

The most sought-after service, by far, is dental care, Lambert said. Dental care is expensive, and 100 million people in the U.S. have no dental insurance. There also is a shortage of dentists, particularly in rural areas.

Vision care also is popular, and participants are able to receive an exam and walk out the same day with eyeglasses, he said. RAM provided 14,444 pairs of glasses last year alone.

General health care is provided, but is in less demand because there are alternatives such as free clinics and emergency rooms, Lambert said. The same is not the case with dental and vision care or veterinary services, which are provided during some clinics.

Local planning underway

A local host group is needed for each clinic, Lambert said. The group does the preparatory ground work such as locating an appropriate venue, arranging to feed volunteers and raising the necessary funding, Lambert said. The planning takes 12 to 24 months.

"We only want to go where we're welcome," Lambert said.

The Valparaiso Kiwanis Club is in discussion to be a possible host for a local clinic, group President Jodi Jackson said.

"This is a way of giving back to the community," she said.

There are a lot of challenges to overcome, not the least of which is raising the estimated $10,000 local contribution, Jackson said.

Expenses vary with each event depending on the community and size of the clinic, Lambert said. The local contribution covers costs such as port-a-potties, venue rental, security, food and lodging, and electric and water, he said.

The local planning group will take part in a meeting this coming week about a potential location, she said.

Schererville resident Dave Maurer, a registered nurse, who will be volunteering at his 26th RAM clinic next month in New Mexico, is joining in the effort to host a local event.

"It's made a profound difference in my life," he said.

Maurer said he began volunteering at the clinics when he was turning 50 a couple of years ago and looking for a way to begin giving back.

"I feel like I'm finally doing something constructive," he said. "I totally feel like I'm making a difference."

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Porter/LaPorte county reporter

Bob is a 23-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.