Stuart Glascock 2015-03-12 06:40:49
So what exactly happens to all those glasses Lions collect? The Northwest Lions Eyeglass Recycling Center in Washington has recycling down to a science. Their service changes the fortunes of thousands. You might meet them in a main street store, barber shop or church. They are not movie stars or super rich. They are neighbors, active retirees and hardworking community volunteers. They are the men and women who turned the Northwest Lions Eyeglass Recycling Center, affectionately known as NWLERC, into a regional dynamo. They have sorted through 1.5 million discarded eyeglasses and reclaimed over 170,000 pairs for distribution in 40 nations. United in a common goal, they transform pile after pile of donated, used, discarded and unwanted eyeglasses. They make perfectly useable eyewear as gifts for the world’s poor. On a modest whiteboard in their office in Olympia, Washington, a few numbers speak volumes. The chart simply lists two months of eyeglass deliveries reaching seven destinations: Mexico, 498 glasses; Honduras, 900; Dominican Republic, 600; Uganda, 418; Mexico (again), 400; Guatemala, 1,200; Kitsap County, Washington (homeless event), 120; Philippines, TBD. The simple tallies reveal certain truths: significant need exists for secondhand glasses. Demand knows no borders. People hunger for clear sight. Vision matters. Donated glasses become the good fortune for those with few means. Most importantly, it takes ordinary people who donate their time—everyday hardworking helpers to make it work. It takes a Lion—lots of them. For some, like NWLERC President Patricia Baron, the volunteer gig morphed into something profound. Retiring after 30 years as a claims administrator in the state Attor ney General’s office, Baron caught the eyeglass recycling bug. A natural leader, Baron keeps the troops on track. “I love it,” she says. She’s mastered every recycling center duty from cleaning buckets of junked glasses to managing occasional zaniness. “It’s just part of me now.” Immediate Past President Jeannie Phillips knows the feeling: “Oh my, it’s my passion,” she says as her inhale becomes slightly audible. “It gets to you.” A Calling In one sense, if you’ve met a NWLERC volunteer, you’ve met them all. True, their personal stories vary. But their intense motivation and heartfelt affection for what they do differ only slightly. Mission coordinator Jean Cook handles requests from individuals and organizations that distribute glasses in developing nation states. A retired CPA, she got involved with NWLERC after seeing an ad for community volunteers in a newspaper. “I was looking for something to get me out of the house,” she says. Now, five years later, she is still getting out. “I need the LERC more than it needs me.” Lensometer technician Karen Schrodt, a Puyallup Valley Lion, drives 90 minutes to check prescriptions. “I’m retired,” Schrodt says during a break, “but I can make a difference.” Schrodt’s task is keen. One after another, she places glasses on a small platform, aligns them and registers a prescription reading. Then she puts the glasses in a plastic bag and notes the prescription. Lastly, she initials the bag for record tracking. At this stage, accuracy is critical. In the Beginning Back before they measured a single lens or fulfilled requests from dozens of countries, the Lions who founded the NWLERC faced a major hurdle. “Before we could move ahead, we needed a facility,” says retired Army optometrist Dr. Bob Pinson, founder of the center and a longtime member of the Lacey Sunrise Lions Club. “This proved to be a significant challenge.” At first, they scouted out several potential sites: a senior center, expensive commercial areas, even a barn. As a temporary step, they shared space with a plumber. Then, after a year, they caught a break. They landed a five-year lease deal with a local fire department and settled down. The property perfectly fit their need. The Northwest Lions took over an 11,000-square-foot former volunteer fire station on 1.5 acres of tall, tree-shaded land. When the lease expired, they bought the 1970s-era building with a grant from the nearby Nisqually Indian Tribe. Instead of housing first responders, the former firehouse now hosts another unsung crew: these guys rescue eyeglasses from trash heaps. It all started with a friendly challenge in 2001. Pinson was urged to create an innovative sight project. He wanted to harness the region’s generous volunteer energy. Being a practical person, Pinson crafted a practical plan. He organized a used eyeglass collection contest. But no one anticipated the outcome; no one expected the incoming eyewear blitz. They were blown away, overwhelmed with glasses, which at the time were shipped to the nearest recycling center in California. Within a year, Pinson launched a drive to build a full-fledged center in the Northwest. Jump ahead a few years, and the operation runs tightly. The NWLERC is neat and tidy. From the clearly la beled supply cabinet to the tagged cardboard containers filled with ready-to-ship eyeglasses, everything seems in place. Inside the main work area—where fire trucks once awaited life-saving deployments—abundant light bounces off the gray cinderblock walls. In fact, one of the first things you notice inside is the brightness. Two dozen 5-foot-long fluorescent tubes shine overhead. Halfway up the side walls, wall-mounted fluorescents brighten the lens technicians’ stations. Desktop lamps cast even more light. Seeing well—clarity—is important here. So is cleanliness: most volunteers wear gloves. At any given time, a dozen volunteers stay busy. Collectors bring in boxes and buckets of donated glasses, gathered from pick-up locations near and far. Sorters, cleaners and inspectors dive into their chores. Lens technicians examine prescriptions. A site manager oversees the workflow, and a quality assurance manager double-checks the finished products. Finally, packers prepare the packages of cleaned and tagged lenses and frames for shipping. The system chugs along both methodically and brilliantly. All kinds of environments exude a signature taste and sound–even an eyeglass recycling hub. The NWLERC’s “taste” would be glazed donuts–seemingly the favorite volunteer fuel source. Its “sound” would be the constant purring of the restaurant-quality dish machine that cleans the glasses. The basic “language,” of course, centers on the serious business of juggling people’s schedules, the supply of glasses, and requests for glasses. The telephone rings, coffee brews and friendly conversation floods the site. That commercial dishwasher, by the way, sanitizes an entire load of eyeglasses in 2.5 minutes. The high-temperature, energy-conserving machine recently replaced a trio of old residential dishwashers that took 40 minutes per load. (Lions positively gush about its high output: “Hey, I’d love to have one of these at home.”) An Army of Helpers While the recycling operation impresses with its production line elegance, volunteers perform the magic. Retired military are well represented, especially because of nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a giant installation supporting 55,000 active duty and civilian workers. Olympia, the state’s capital, is about 60 minutes south of Seattle. Not far away, Mt. Rainier rises 14,410 feet. You can’t see it because trees block it; the entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park sits 50 miles east. Site manager Bill Miller clutches his yellow and blue Lions coffee mug like it contains precious materials, which is funny because he functions as a miner. He digs through piles of old glasses, sniffing out gold in granny glasses. He sorts glasses, separating single view and multiple view lenses, and tosses the scratched and corroded to be recycled. All the while, he hunts for gold-plated or gold-filled frames. Miller and the other sorters scan for gold and separate them out from other glasses. All the precious metal glasses are shipped intact to two different refineries: gold-filled glasses go to a small shop in Wisconsin, while gold-plated and all other precious metals go to a refinery in California. Pricing varies depending on frame size, but can be as high as $7 or $8 each, Baron says. A box of 350 gold-filled frames recently brought a check for $2,800. Proceeds from the small gold bits help keep the lights on. A former aerospace engineer and Lacey Sunrise Lion, Miller takes pride in providing perfect glasses. “No scratches,” Miller says. His blue NWLERC shirt and blue Lions cap match his ever-present Lions caffeine dispenser. Another NWLERC regular, Roberta Fender, grew tired of retirement at home, so she got involved; now she’s not home alone much. She packs and labels glasses at least two days a week. The eyeglass-handling tasks don’t demand much physically, but they require focus and insight. The NWLERC harbors another secret weapon: Lacey Lamplighters Lions Club member Harry Thornton. An 88- year-old, he obsessively gathers used glasses. So obsessed, he has collected over 80,000 pairs. Thornton maintains 30 donation boxes in Thurston Country—at eye clinics, libraries, thrift shops, schools and doctors’ offices. The octogenarian manages all the pickups personally. NWLERC gets its glasses from throughout the state of Washington and parts of western Idaho. To the north, Canadian glasses stay in Canada. To the south, Oregon Lions have their own recycling operation. Washington Lions Clubs monitor a network of 400 collection boxes. Lions clubs in Washington also manage 15 “satellite” centers around the state where glasses are preliminarily sorted before going to the NWLERC. The supply of glasses isn’t exactly constant, but there’s never too many. “Absolutely, unqualified, no, we never have too many glasses,” Baron says. The economic downturn has lessened supply. People are buying new glasses for fashion statements less often. Look inside the NWLERC’s monthly newsletter FOCUS and you’ll find the names of many more Lions who keep things running: John Kirry, Roberta Pinson, Cliff Brandsma, Jacqueline Pratt, Ed Kane, Don Hayden, Pat Bucknell, Michael Petty, Iris Young, Terry Wright and Brian and Claire Thompson, among others. Ask anyone and they will insist the center focuses on quality. Their incoming-to-reusable eyeglass ratio runs about 10-to-1. In other words, for every 10 pair of glasses donated, only one fits the requirements for frame quality, lens quality and range of prescriptions requested. Glasses failing quality measures are sold for materials. Nothing gets wasted: even some of these recycled glasses end up being recycled. Glasses with broken or missing parts are sent to a reconditioning and recycling company in Los Angeles called Respecs Restoration & Recycling, which restores some glasses for resale. It salvages as much as possible. Leftover materials such as plastic and metal frames, screws and hinges are recycled. Glass and plastic lenses are not recycled. Profits from sales to Respecs support the LERC’s operating expenses. Scratched lenses are the biggest reason that sorters reject glasses, followed by poor-quality, broken or cracked frames. Style sometimes enters into it. A display board in the main work area features several oversized, round glasses, sometime called “owl” glasses. “The mission people have found that people reject these super-big glasses. Nobody would wear them,” says Baron. “Little skinny glasses are very popular.” The Future Looking ahead, changes loom. For example, state lawmakers in Washington recently passed a bill providing immunity from liability for nonprofit groups that provide used eyeglasses for charitable purposes. While there haven’t been problems, charity groups have feared litigation. The new law hasn’t been tested, but it would allow groups to set up clinics and dispense prescription eyeglasses without the threat of being sued. Nationally and internationally, eyeglass recycling remains extremely popular among Lions clubs, says Marilee Kadar of Lions Clubs International. “The program is very popular; it’s known around the world,” Kadar says. “Lions collect glasses in almost every community.” In total, Lions’ centers recycle over 7 million eyeglasses every year. There are 18 Lions recycling centers worldwide. “There is a demand for sure,” she says. While not the oldest or the largest, Washington state’s center has a “good reputation for always being well run,” she adds. Another recent development signals major changes. Some Lions recycling centers are beginning to manufacture their own glasses, Kadar says. They have the space, facilities and ability to raise money to start their own manufacturing labs. Several centers are looking into what other types of services they could offer. “How ideal it would be for a person in need to receive a brand-new pair of glasses,” Kadar says. “That’s difficult now, but it is an approach we’d like to take.” Meanwhile, back in a quiet corner of the former fire station, quality assurance manager Jack Ford plays backstop. He checks one last time before the secondhand glasses are sealed for transport. Ford has worn glasses since his junior year in high school. He values correct prescriptions. He also spent 21 years on the front lines of the aerospace business. “I’ve lived with specifications all my life,” he says, matter-of-factly. The eyeglass recycling business is not about rocket science, aerospace or astrophysics. It is not sexy or glamorous. In endearing ways, it is all about ordinary people— the kind you might bump into in a family-run hardware store—such as the volunteers who built and operate the NWLERC. From Washington to the World Last October, four western Washington Lions distributed eyeglasses while on a large humanitarian operation in Jamaica. They transported frames and lenses to the birthplace of reggae singer Bob Marley and the headquarters of the Jamaican Bobsled Team on the island’s north coast. Several organizations organized the trip including iCARE, Great Shape! Inc., Sandals Foundation, Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH), the Northwest Lions Eyeglass Recycling Center (NWLERC), and the Jamaican Ministry of Health. Nearly 3,000 Jamaicans endured long lines in hot weather at a clinic in Priory, St. Ann, to receive free health care and new eyewear. The volunteers achieved their goal of providing free eye care to Jamaican youth and elders: mission accomplished. Scenes like that repeat dozens of times every year. Eyeglasses processed by NWLERC volunteer Lions are dispersed to humanitarian groups traveling to developing countries. These groups often include Lions traveling and operating as part of the Lions SightFirst program, VOSH, World Vision, EyeCare WeCare Foundation, optometry college groups, military civil assistance groups and numerous church groups. Sometimes the recycled glasses are distributed on large missions, collaborative efforts orchestrated by several humanitarian organizations. Other times the missions are led by a small church group or a handful of volunteers, often doctors, many of whom are Lions. In short, the recycling center has no shortage of clientele. In fact, their inbox often overflows with requests for eyewear, says NWLERC President Patricia Baron. “We are only able to fill a portion of every mission request we get,” she says. “What keeps us up at night is thinking about getting the word out to people not to throw their old glasses away.” Humanitarian groups all over the United States submit applications for NWLERC’s recycled glasses, says Jean Cook, NWLERC mission coordinator. Many are Lions or affiliated with Lions, but not all. Church groups dispatch many delegations to developing countries. But because some countries don’t allow religious organizations, some missions are organized strictly as medical missions. One mission group is taking NWLERC glasses into North Korea. Most church groups send mission groups only once a year. “It’s a big undertaking to do this,” says Cook. In every case involving prescription lenses, Cook says, an eye care professional, an ophthalmologist or optometrist, has to be present on the mission trip. Smaller groups often ask for 400 to 800 pairs, and they’ll carry those as checked luggage. Large groups often take thousands of glasses and ship those to the destinations in advance. Large mission groups often ask for glasses from several different LERCS, seeking enough glasses to fill their needs. Whether large or small, the traveling groups pay for shipping. Nearby humanitarian groups pick the glasses up at the recycling center headquarters. For all the rest, a local UPS store is owned by a Lion, and he handles confirming shipping details with the recipients. NWLERC gets a lot of repeat business because their glasses are cleaner than others, Cook said. She credits the center’s focus on quality for the popularity of their glasses among humanitarian organizations. “We definitely get more requests than we can fill,” she says. While the supply of donated glasses and the demand for recycled ones cycles up and down, the Lions at NWLERC are always seeking more glasses. Their monthly newsletter always encourages members to corral more glasses. “We have to keep asking,” Cook says. “We’re not working at capacity. That’s never happened. We can handle more.”
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