Club produces thousands of glasses for eyes in need

There’s more to the Northwest Lions Eyeglass Recycling Center program than first meets the eye.

Founded in 2004 with just a handful of volunteers, the Lions Club project based in a former Lacey Fire District No. 3 fire station on Mullen Road near Lacey has produced more than 78,000 pairs of donated eyeglasses for distribution to sight-impaired children and adults in 26 countries on four continents.

The center receives about 10,000 eyeglass donations each month from throughout Washington state and as far away as Japan, said Bob Pinson, the retired Army optometrist and Lacey Sunrise Lions Club member who helped transform the eyeglass recycling center from an idea several years ago into one of 17 International Lions Club International-sanctioned centers in the United States and around the world.

Today, the nonprofit operation based in South Sound consists of a nine-member board of directors, 13 officers and staff and more than 500 volunteers from 82 Lions Clubs working at the center and seven satellite offices throughout the Northwest, said John Kirry, a retired commercial airline pilot from Gig Harbor and recycling center president.

“This is hands-on Lionism at its best,” Kirry said.

Of the 10,000 eyeglasses received each month, about 6,000 pairs are either in poor condition or don’t meet the prescription parameters that make the glasses a good fit for reuse in Third World countries. Those discarded eyeglasses landed in the garbage.

“It just broke out hearts to send those glasses to the landfill,” said Pat Baron, recycling manager and member of the Lacey Mid-Day Lions Club.

Baron is feeling better these days after connecting with a Los Angeles, Calif-based, company called Re-Specs Restoration and Recycling.

Since last year, the eyeglasses not suitable for reuse are recycled by Re-Specs, which recovers the plastic, metal and gold from the lenses and frames.

Better yet, the Lacey area eyeglass recycling center receives 75 cents a pound from Re-Specs. With shipments of about 1,000 pounds to Southern California every six weeks, the Lions are earning enough recycling income to pay their monthly rent and some of their overhead expenses.

For its efforts, the Northwest Lions Eyeglass Recycling Center recently received the 2009 Recycler of the Year Award from the Washington State Recycling Association in the nonprofit category.

At the Lacey area recycling center, volunteers learn to sort, wash and read eyeglass prescriptions on one of the seven lensometers.

Some of the volunteers are community members with no other affiliation with the Lions Club, including Carol Bartley, an Olympia area resident. She and her husband volunteer at the center about 20 hours a month.

“It’s nice to make a global impact so close to home,” she said. “We’re both retired schoolteachers, so literacy and helping children to read is important to us.”

The glasses that can be reused are distributed in developing countries by charitable and humanitarian groups such as the Lions Sight First Program, World Vision and the Volunteer Optometric Services for Humanity.

Among the 65 missions connected to the eyeglass recycling center so far was one to the southern coast of Thailand and the northern mountains near Laos involving Lions Club member and Centralia optometrist Dr. Joseph Dolezal. He wrote:

“Until your provide these services ... you cannot understand how much a simple gift of used eyewear can make to some individuals lives. One of the weavers just sat there looking at her in hands in disbelief that she could see her fingerprints!”

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com.