“After my junior year in high school I went to Mexico and dug latrines for Amigos de las Americas. After my senior year, I went to Paraguay and vaccinated during a polio and measles epidemic and taught kids how to brush their teeth,” says New Orleans attorney Dana Atchison.
Atchison has spent much of her adult life volunteering in Spanish-speaking countries, in addition to working a full-time job as an attorney.
She was influenced by her high school Spanish teacher, who turned her onto Amigos, a group that brings teens and young adults into Central American countries for volunteer work. “I was 17 years old when I started, and it was a real eye opener,” says Atchison. “It made a huge impact on me, so I wanted to do it again.”
Photo: Dana Atchison
After college, Atchison translated documents on behalf of newly arrived individuals from central America for Catholic Charities USA.
Physical therapist and friend Jeroen Staarman got Atchison involved in the New Orleans Medical Mission Services (NOMMS), a program similar to Doctors Without Borders, for a one-week period in Central America. “They needed people who spoke Spanish, and it sounded really interesting and so I volunteered in Ecuador. I assisted Jeroen with physical therapy and worked in the eyeglass clinic,” says Atchison. She found it so satisfying that she went back the following year, this time in Nicaragua. Eventually, she took over that clinic and ran it from 2008-2019.
Atchison spent her Saturdays processing thousands of pairs glasses donated to NOMMS for use in the eye clinic. Atchison also trained volunteers to use the autorefractor (an instrument that reads eyes), find the correct prescription and fit the glasses to the recipients.
“A pair of glasses down there is cost-prohibitive, they just can’t afford it,” says Atchison. During the years she oversaw the eye clinic, her team helped almost 20,000 patients. “It was deeply satisfying work.” She continues to serve on the board of directors and provides legal support to the organization.