Donna Eggen: A beautiful patchwork of service

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Donna Eggen in India with donated glasses
Photo courtesy Donna Eggen

By Mark D. Goodwin

Mark D. Goodwin was a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory when he wrote this story as an intern for the ShorelineAreaNews.

Donna Eggen always wanted to see faraway places and be of service to other people. “Missions have been a wonderful way to combine these,” she said.

But piecing it all together takes time. No one knows this better than Eggen, 61: she’s an award-winning quilter, rotary member, and international volunteering optician. Born in Tacoma, she relocated to Shoreline to attend the University of Washington. Which is, incidentally, where she met her husband: (now Shoreline Councilman) Chris Eggen.

They’ve raised two children, now grown, and have lived in Shoreline for 37 years. It was in the late 90s when Donna was first bitten by the international volunteering bug. She had worked at the local level several times, but never on the scale of what she was about to make regular practice.

Volunteering is part of Donna's nature.
Here she stacks rocks in a community building project.
Photo courtesy Donna Eggen

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 26 percent of Americans volunteered (at least once) between September of 2009 and 2010. The United Kingdom’s government website reports 41 percent of its citizens volunteered in the year prior. 

Eggen says “It’s just a part of my nature.”

Cecily Kalman is Eggen’s best friend of 27 years. “We adore each other. She is an incredibly positive thinker, [and has] amazing devotion to the betterment of the world,” Kalman said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with her and I can’t get enough of it. She’s just a great person - very generous and very caring.”

Donna in Honduras with a local at an optical clinic
Photo courtesy Donna Eggen

She applied for her first mission while working as an optician for Lens Crafters in 1997. She was selected for a team travelling to the Philippines to implement the charitable program: “Gift of Sight.” Old and used glasses from the several regional Lens Crafters locations are collected and donated to impoverished peoples around the world. According to Eggen, they helped 16,000 people in eight clinic days on this particular tour.

Similar Lens Crafters sponsored trips to Chile and Guatemala followed, and she was hooked. In 2003, a special kind of agenda was pieced together to help the children of San Felipe, Mexico (about 100 miles north of Mexico City). 

“Instead of bringing used glasses, we brought everything necessary to make glasses [there],” Eggen said. They brought frames, lenses, machines, and set up doctor lanes to serve an average of 500 kids per day.

Donna in Honduras
Photo courtesy Donna Eggen

An entire month was spent in the town - the longest Eggen had ever been away from home. “On day 19, I hit the wall and cried from homesickness,” Eggen said. “I called home 2-3 times a week.”

The “Gift of Sight” program soon grew so vast, so quickly, that Eggen no longer worked with the charity. She would not be deterred from helping the disadvantaged, however.

“Another avenue opened up through my church. I go to North Seattle Friends Church - a Quaker Church,” explained Eggen. A husband and wife “doctor team” gave a presentation about their charitable medical work in Honduras. It inspired Eggen to ask if she could help within her capacity as an optician. They were thrilled and asked her to go with them on their next trip to San Marcos, Honduras.

On this trip, Eggen worked under her own authority to help people get the right glasses they needed. “I felt quite a sense of accomplishment to be doing this on my own,” she said. “People were so happy to see for reading, sewing and near-work.”

On their next trip to Honduras, Eggen thought to bring sunglasses for donation, and they too were widely appreciated. This had never occurred to her before, and became standard practice. She also managed to fit in a small vacation at the end of her work, travelling to the Ruins of Copán and a nearby bird sanctuary.

Donna went on a church mission to Burundi, Africa
Photo courtesy Donna Eggen

A mere nine days after returning from Honduras for the second time, Eggen traveled with other members of her church to build a women’s shelter in Gitega, Burundi (a small landlocked country in the Great Lakes region of Africa near Congo). While there, they also carved a terraced outdoor amphitheater into an ideal hillside next to the rising shelter.

“I had seen poverty before, but nothing like this,” she said. “They were dressed in rags. For the first time on any mission, it moved me to tears.”

On her next trip into town she personally bought twenty outfits to give away at their farewell ceremonies.
There's a tailor in India who can now see to thread his needle
Photo courtesy Donna Eggen

Her next mission with fellow church members was again aimed to help with medical and vision needs. Not in Honduras this time, but Bangalore, India. After a week and a half of clinics in three different villages, Eggen recalled a particularly special case in which she and her companions intervened on an even deeper level.

“A woman with a handicapped son of six years could no longer carry him,” she remembers. They gave the woman funds to purchase a wheelchair and helmet for her boy.

Once settled back at home, Eggen joined the Rain City Rotary of Shoreline. Every Christmas they cook and serve dinner at Mary’s Place, a shelter for women downtown; they start community gardens; the local rotary district recently gathered over 20,000 books locally and shipped them to needy children in Africa.

Donna administering polio vaccine to an African child
Photo courtesy Donna Eggen

Eggen soon learned of the “Polio Plus Challenge” (currently called “End Polio Now”), a partnership with the Gates Foundation to eradicate polio worldwide. She began asking around as to who she should talk to about getting involved.

Every October, local activist and South Seattle insurance salesman Ezra Teshome organized a trip to Ethiopia for his mission to end polio in his home country. Last year, he was awarded the World Citizen award by the World Affairs Council of Seattle, and was even recognized as one of Time’s “10 Global Health Heroes.” In 2009, Eggen joined with his group via the Rotary chapter.

This was the first time she raised funds by simply asking other people for money. “I was astounded how eager people were to help and donate,” she said.

Once there, the Rotary Club volunteers walked the countryside neighborhoods of Harrar, Ethiopia. They knocked on doors, asking people to bring their kids into the city for free vaccinations. “Only one father was doubtful about the safety of the vaccine, but we convinced him it was safe,” she said. She did have the opportunity to vaccinate some of the children herself, as well.

Donna uses the pattern on the hem of her dress to 

help gauge the glasses for a seamstress in India
Photo courtesy Donna Eggen
In 2011, Eggen was back in India. On this trip, she made a point to tour four different slums. “That was a very sobering experience. The most unusual was ‘Pipe City,’” she said. “They live in huge six-foot diameter, ten-foot long, concrete pipes.” The inhabitants seal each end with crude brick and mortar, and the concrete company, which placed the pipes, provides power and water.

“After returning home from seeing all this poverty, I looked around at all I have,” she recalls, “It made me both happy and sad at the same time.”

Donna finished her quilt!

Eggen is currently working on a quilt to commemorate her last six missions. She had photos from her travels transferred to fabric, and has a design in mind. She said, “I’ve gathered fabrics from all the areas that I’ve visited and plan on including them in my quilt.”

She has been quilting for over three decades, belongs to two quilting guilds, and won prizes for her art quilt, “Fantastic Garden,” at the Evergreen State Fair. Eggen has made quilts for friends and family, but only ever sold them in charity auctions.

“I’m a very traditional quilter, I prefer regular piecing… I will be quilting until my life is done,” she vowed. When asked about her plans for future volunteering around the world, Eggen said, “No plans right now, but who knows?”

Over her ten missions, Donna Eggen has directly helped tens of thousands of people around the world, and it’s possible for you to do the same. Information about volunteer opportunities at the web pages for: Rotary, Rain City Rotary or volunteering in Shoreline.


Lorraine Watson June 11, 2016 at 7:32 PM  

Donna is still traveling on mission! Her next trip is scheduled for the fall of 2016 to South Africa with Days for Girls. Donna has the gift of mercy and loves to put words into action by helping people in need. Lorraine Watson, Pastor of North Seattle Friends Church

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