An Elkridge resident sees his vision of lifelong service bear fruit


THIS IS a story about vision, about the many forms our visions take, about the haphazard opportunities and the random acts that, only in hindsight, seem to have been a foreordained path.

More than two decades ago, while in junior high school, Michael Henningsen, now 44 and living in Elkridge, received a calling. Although the call to a ministry was clear, the details remained awfully fuzzy. When his exact life direction failed to emerge by adulthood, he did what any young man would do - he built a life and hoped the answers would come in time.

First, he joined the Navy and received training as an eye technician. In his early 20s, the California native worked on sailors' and senators' vision at Bethesda Naval Hospital, hoping his inner vision would manifest itself.

After his stint in the Navy, he returned to Maryland, this time to enroll as an undergraduate at the Johns Hopkins University.

In 1986, he realized that only 14 years remained until the end of the century; what would he have accomplished by then? If he were ever to fulfill the calling he'd felt all his adult life, he had better begin. Looking back on his professional and volunteer life, he realized that he had had, by luck or providence, a focus on eye care. As he also had spent the decade involved in church activities, even serving as youth pastor in his church, he realized his ministry: providing vision care for the truly needy.

Using the first proceeds from his sideline business repairing eye- care equipment, he incorporated Mission Opticians in 1987 with the goal of serving the needy who required vision care. Within the year, the organization had received 2,400 pairs of eyeglasses. The very small staff cleaned, sorted by prescription size and sent the specifications to missions.

And then the Lions became involved. The Lions Club collects eyeglasses throughout the nation and donates them to organizations such as Mission Opticians. One day, the group found itself with 40,000 pairs of glasses - a truckload.

With that many in hand, the mission was under way. A space was rented in the basement of Savage Mill to clean and process the eyewear. Over the years, the organization has grown. Five years ago, it moved to the main floor of the building and offered eye care to the community for a fee. Profits from the office help fund the group's overseas and community outreach efforts. It has four ophthalmologists on staff (they take time from their own practices to work part time), a surgeon, four opticians and administrative staffers.

Serendipity continues to strike. Given an old school bus years before, Henningsen and company thought a mobile optician's office would be a terrific idea. They could provide eye care to homeless shelters, senior centers, rural areas and at community health fairs.

The bus needed repairs - a new engine, a paint job, the interior gutted - and all the licenses paid. But the press of other concerns in the mission kept the project unfinished. The bus languished in a garage. Maybe it was time to get rid of it, thought Henningsen three months ago.

Then he went to hear a speaker at his church, Bethel Assembly of God in Savage. In talking to the speaker, the Rev. Rob Schenck, Henningsen learned that Schenck had as a guest Norm Beetler, the director of Buses International, an Ohio group that refurbishes buses as mobile clinics and dental offices for missions.

A quick deal was struck. Buses International took the bus to Ohio and a month later asked Henningsen to pick it up. He flew to Ohio (his only expense) to pick up a painted, carpeted mobile office. It debuted Saturday at the Bethel Christian Academy Health Fair.

Years before, Henningsen had been to the Philippines on a short-term medical mission to teach workers at a clinic how to conduct eye exams. Around Christmas 1999, he received an e-mail from them requesting 1,000 eyeglass frames. He wrote to some of his vendors asking for donations. Two days later, a box arrived from a major manufacturer of high-end eyewear, containing 1,000 pairs of new frames. Within 10 days of receiving the e-mail, the frames were on their way.

It's a story to be proud of.

Egyptian fair

Have that post-Savage Fest let-down? St. Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church will hold its fair this weekend. Unusual for this area, the fair focuses on Egyptian-style goods and crafts.

Food, pastries, jewelry, Coptic art, papyrus paintings, leather goods and more will be available. The two-day Egyptian bazaar will run from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the church, 8340 Woodward St. in Savage.

Information: 410-880-0903.

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