Organization has clear focus on providing vision impairment relief in impoverished countries
Writer: Shannon Siders
Vision problems do not always need drastic solutions such as surgery to positively change the life of the person afflicted. Often a simple pair of reading glasses can make all the difference for someone suffering from sight problems.
In the United States, reading glasses can be bought for just a few dollars, but citizens of impoverished countries do not have the same access to this life-changing resource.
“There are anywhere from 500 million to a billion people in the world who need reading glasses,” says Mark Sachs, founder of the nonprofit RestoringVision. “And most of them are in developing countries.”
Sachs participated in a social responsibility program through LensCrafters more than 20 years ago while working for an optical company. A team of optometrists and other professionals in the eye care industry would travel to developing countries to perform eye exams and distribute eyeglasses, reading glasses and sunglasses to those in need.
Sachs joined a group headed to Mexico in what turned out to be a life-changing trip.
“I didn’t have the technical training to perform the exams, so I would look at the prescription they were given to find a pair of used glasses that most closely matched what the person needed,” Sachs says.
He was eager to find the right match for each patient but quickly noticed his station of prescription eyeglasses was being bypassed by throngs of other patients.
“Many people didn’t even stop where I was, they went past me to where the reading glasses were,” Sachs says. “I noticed that and it made a big impression on me.”
Fast forward to 2003, when Sachs was looking for an opportunity to help others. He remembered the experience in Mexico from nearly a decade before and contacted LensCrafters.
There was a need for Sachs to source reading glasses for the social responsibility program that had made such an impact on him, and he quickly got to work contacting reading glasses distributors to see if they had extra inventory.
Many of the distributors did have extra inventory, but Sachs was disappointed to find out the surplus glasses were usually destroyed. Distributors did not want to hurt their brand by selling extras on the secondary market.
Sachs had another plan in mind.
“I asked them, ‘If I could guarantee you they’d go out of the country, would you be willing to donate?’” Sachs said. “And they said yes.”
The distributors began to donate large quantities of glasses, and Sachs connected organizations already distributing glasses to developing countries with the donated reading glasses so they could be distributed along with prescription glasses.
As supply increased, Sachs made a pivot that shaped RestoringVision into what it is today.
“I got to the point where I had more reading glasses than the optical organizations needed,” he says. “I started to find groups that were going to developing countries for any reason.”
Sachs knew there were groups going to developing countries to provide dentistry services, build schools and other social outreach on a regular basis. He moved carefully at first, afraid demand for the reading glasses would outstrip the supply, but a commitment to donate every year from Foster Grant, the largest manufacturer of reading glasses in the world, took off some of the pressure.
Since then, RestoringVision has supported more than 1,500 groups that have gone on over 5,000 mission trips. Permanent clinics have also started to pop up in some of the developing countries, with the support of the donated glasses.
RestoringVision also receives support from other reading glasses manufacturers and warehouse space from Walmart. The program has really taken off because of the simplicity of it.
“We get groups to take reading glasses with them because it’s easy to do and makes a dramatic impact,” Sachs says.
Patients are typically able to “self-prescribe” reading glasses because they can tell which power is right for them. The reading glasses provide an instant benefit to the person receiving them, and can truly change the lives of those affected.
“Everyone eventually needs reading glasses because the muscle in the eye weakens when older,” Sachs says. “People all of a sudden can’t see up close anymore and are out of luck. These people have skills and families who need them, yet they are unable to do the work they need to do or the work they love.”
Even simple tasks such as threading a needle can become difficult, or even impossible, with eyesight issues, prohibiting a seamstress or tailor from completing their work.
A University of Michigan study showed that vision correction (not necessarily reading glasses) leads to a 35 percent increase in productivity and a 20 percent increase in wages. For someone earning just $5 per day, that is an additional $250 of income per year. Reading glasses can help people reap some of these benefits, by carrying out their daily tasks, working and leading productive lives again.
Sachs and his team at RestoringVision are always looking for groups who are traveling to or have clinics in developing countries to help distribute reading glasses. This work brought him to Jeffersontown last November for the 2017 Global Missions Health Conference.
Thousands of attendees flocked to Southeast Christian Church for the conference, which brings together those who do mission work to learn about best practices and get connected with more resources for their organizations.
Sachs made some great connections and found even more groups to help further the mission of RestoringVision.
“RestoringVision could not be successful if it wasn’t for the groups that agree to take the glasses, set up the clinics and dispense the glasses,” Sachs says. “We’re a facilitator. We try to make whatever mission they’re going on more successful, so they can be more beneficial to the people they’re serving.”
RestoringVision charges a small handling fee of 50 cents a pair, and the organizations distributing them must commit to doing so at no cost.
“We want to make sure the groups we partner with are reputable and ethical,” Sachs says. “We don’t want them selling the glasses to people who can’t afford them.”
Sachs has gone on several more trips since founding RestoringVision and hopes to go on more in the future.
“It is amazing because there’s such a need out there, and the impact is so immediate that you will see people crying with joy,” Sachs says. “They can’t believe it in many cases. Everyone returns with such a profound sense of accomplishment.”
Individuals, groups or companies who are interested in learning more about RestoringVision, donating to the cause, or taking reading glasses on an upcoming trip can visit restoringvision.org for more information.
“We are trying to make a difference in the world, but we could not do it without the support of our partners,” Sachs says.