Katya Cengel 2014-07-09 15:03:37
A California Lion hauls eyeglasses thousands of miles to help thousands It’s barely six in the morning, and the other homes in his subdivision are cloaked in darkness. But Walter Griffin ritually pops open a diet soda in his driveway and painstakingly finishes loading his GMC truck. It’s a safe bet he’s the only person in his San Francisco Bay Area subdivision whose converted car trailer, attached to the truck’s rear hitch, is crammed with boxes containing 50,000 recycled eye-glasses. The eyeglasses intersect the lives of hundreds of thousands: the average Joes and Janes who donated them, the Lions who collected and recycled them and the impoverished Mexicans who will gratefully receive them and see the world in sharpness and clarity instead of hazily and indistinctly. Griffin is the point person for the whole enterprise. To accompany him is to understand that the glasses don’t get to the people in need without enduring a monotonous long-distance drive, muscle-straining exertion, crossing the border frustrations and the occasional “oh-my-gosh” sudden road mishaps. But Griffin’s route also is a journey through the world of Lions–a road trip with stops peopled by yellow vested allies in the mission to spread the gift of vision. On a wide stretch of Interstate 5 in California’s agriculturally rich Central Valley, Griffin reaches for a bag of Fritos in the backseat and another diet soda. “Breakfast time,” he chirps. Resting on the backseat are a carton of Timeless Time cigarettes and a stuffed toy bear. A gift from Griffin’s wife, Linda, the bear has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles with Griffin as he delivers the recycled eyeglasses to the Mexican border. They will be used in vision clinics in Mexico and beyond. Griffin makes the most of his time on the road: he also picks up eyeglasses collected by fellow Lions and delivers them to the warehouse of Lions In Sight of California and Nevada in Vallejo, where the glasses are sorted before being processed and delivered. Last year, Lions In Sight of California and Nevada provided 444,220 eyeglasses to the needy in developing countries and here at home through their vision clinics. More than 90 percent of the eyeglasses they collect for the clinics–530,000 last year (not all can be recycled)–arrive at the warehouse via Griffin, says Bill Iannoccone, chief operations officer for Lions In Sight. “He’s indispensable,” said Iannoccone. Griffin has worn out tires, trailers and trucks, but he keeps hauling. At 65 he resembles a cross between Santa Claus and Colonel Sanders: red cheeks, white beard and eyes that twinkle with mischief. He makes the trip to the Mexican border town of Nogales, Arizona, several times a year and heads to Nevada and Southern California almost as often to pick up glasses. His brother, Stuart, usually rides shotgun, but this trip Linda, who is 66, is serving as navigator. It was Linda who introduced Walter to Lions. She became a Lion in the 1980s and along with Walter is a member of the Walnut Creek Ygnacio Valley Commuters Lions Club as well as the Lions In Sight team. She was Walter’s boss before she was his wife. In the late 1990s she was always leaving the Cadillac dealership where they worked to attend Lions events. Out of curiosity he began attending with her. Soon Griffin was accompanying another Lion to Mexico to deliver glasses and when that man moved on Griffin took over. His original retirement plan had been to buy a car hauler and travel the country buying classic cars. That was before Linda, before Lions and before the back injury that forced him into early retirement in 1999. He started hauling eyeglasses because it felt good. “It still feels good, most of the time,” Griffin says. “And I guess I feel like, if I’m not going to do this, I’m sure somebody else around might do it. But I don’t have anything else to do. And it helps.” Griffin modestly downplays his commitment when he mentions the time he has. The truth is he likes the road and likes helping others. "Being able to help others keeps you a Lion," he says. The morning stretches on, and the Angel’s 1950’s hit “My Boyfriend’s Back” is playing on the radio. The road makes him reminisce. Griffin recounts past trip horror stories: the time the box lids shot 40 feet in the air on the freeway (he tapes them shut now), the time the rear gate flew open (he ropes it now) and the time he spent eight hours at the Mexican border, directed to count the 75,000 eyeglasses. A Mexican counterpart now takes the glasses across the border. At first Griffin did only deliveries. But returning empty-handed seemed like a waste, so he contacted Lions clubs on his route and asked if they had glasses for him. They did, storage sheds and garages full of them. They had been collecting them for years, but didn’t have the money to ship them to the Vallejo warehouse. The first eyeglass pickup this trip is in Lancaster, California. Wayne Hoffmeyer is waiting when the Griffins pull into the parking lot of the muffler repair shop where they have agreed to rendezvous around lunch time. “No matter what time I tell him he’s always sitting there,” says Griffin. Hoffmeyer hugs Linda and compliments Walter on his new truck. He has white hair and a white truck, the back of which is loaded five boxes with 400 or so eyeglasses each. A retired engineer and longtime Lion, Hoffmeyer, 77, hasn’t taken a full week off from Lion’s work since he retired from his paying job 20 years ago. It starts to rain outside of Hemet Valley, the next pickup location. Griffin maneuvers the truck and trailer down a narrow alley, stopping in front of a garage with a small Lions emblem on it. Inside the back gate 10 boxes are stacked under an awning. A sign on the back door warns: “Beware of Attack Flamingo,” but the low-hanging wind chimes pose more of a threat. Thunder sounds in the distance as diminutive Dottie Allen, 75, comes out to help the Griffins load the boxes into their covered truck bed. “Every person large or small that we help is one more that sees better,” says Allen, president of California Lions Friends in Sight. Back on the road windmills give way to white sand dunes. The rain stops as suddenly as it began and the temperature creeps back into the triple digits. Just before the Arizona border the rain returns and lightning bolts light up the desert sky. The Griffins pull into a budget motel in Quartzsite, Arizona, at a little before 9 p.m. A handwritten sign taped to the front desk warns of a bug invasion. The next morning begins with a search for Cadillac cars and camel figurines. Griffin spotted a classic car lot while searching for food the night before and wants to find a 1959 Cadillac. Linda spotted a city sign with camel figurines she wants to photograph. They cruise through Quartzsite listening to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Both the car and the camels are a bust and by 8:15 they are headed out of Quartzsite. It is already 100 degrees outside. Griffin laments the limited roadside attractions in this section of Arizona desert as he pops his first soda of the day. “Don’t see any animals, don’t see birds, don’t see anything, not even dead animals,” he says. “It’s like nothing lives out here.” Griffin enjoys driving, but that isn’t what keeps him on the road. It is the lesson he learned from a family in Peru he met while on a Lions In Sight mission trip. They only made $90 a month, but they still were helping those worse off than themselves. “You just realize that a little bit of help goes a long ways,” he says. By afternoon scrubland has begun to dot the desert. Closer to the Mexican border the landscape is overtaken by warehouses and parking lots. Griffin unloads the glasses in a warehouse in Nogales and not a border town in California, because his Mexican counterpart, Joel Gomez, lives closer to the Arizona border. Later Gomez will take the boxes across the border and store them near his home before dispersing them to Mexico’s 39 permanent vision clinics. Since Griffin started doing the road trips everything has been more reliable and affordable, Gomez writes in an email. “Thousands of people can see now, thanks to those glasses,” he added. It is after six at night when the Griffins arrive at the home of relatives in Tucson where they will stay the night. They haven’t had a meal since breakfast, but long before dinner is served Griffin falls asleep on an easy chair in the living room, his dusty cowboy boots kicked to the side. The next morning he moves slowly, his back stiff from the previous day’s hefting. A piece of plywood becomes loose from the floor of the car trailer and he pulls to the side of the highway to fix it. Semi-trailer trucks whiz by at 60 miles an hour. Back on the road his phone starts ringing, Lions wanting to know when he will be by to pick up their eyeglasses. Patty Wilson has 15 boxes of 255 eyeglasses each waiting for him at the Blind Community Center of San Diego, an organization sponsored by Lions clubs that provides social activities for the blind. Before Griffin came into the picture, Wilson tried all kinds of ways to get the eyeglasses to the warehouse: a freight plane worked well until the business that owned it went bust and UPS was expensive and always changing their rules. “We could send them in boxes, then we couldn’t send them in boxes unless we put a plastic liner in," says Wilson, who is 88. At the next pickup, Fran and Jim Ashcraft remember flying to Mexico for clinics with duffel bags stuffed with used eyeglasses. The bags were cumbersome to haul around and didn’t always make it through security. “I got red lighted so they took everything out,” recalls Fran, who is 70. Jim, who is 69 and second vice president of Lions In Sight, adds, “It’s a great service that he [Griffin] does. I know it takes a lot of time just driving.” Over the last four years Fran estimates she and her husband have collected more than 4,000 eyeglasses just through their church. They also collect from friends, neighbors and fellow Lions. It takes time–and a lot of garage space–but once you have experienced the difference the glasses make during a vision clinic you will do anything you can to help, says Fran. She still remembers the welder in Mexico who she fit with women’s bifocals because that was all she had. “He grabbed my hands, kissing them,” says Fran. “He was so grateful just to be able to see; he didn’t care whether they were women’s glasses or not.” The Griffins arrive home before midnight on the fourth day after driving a total of 38 hours, 25 minutes and 2,084 miles. The soda cans are empty, the cigarette supply depleted. Griffin will drive to the warehouse to unload the boxes another day. Then, in several months, he will do it all over again, this time maybe to Nevada or Southern California.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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