One of the world’s most extensive public-health initiatives for people with intellectual disabilities had its beginnings in the 1990s in New Jersey, where Dr. Paul Berman, a member of the Hackensack Lions Club, noticed that many of the participants in the Special Olympics needed glasses. Berman, who died in 2013, forged the partnership between Special Olympics and Lions Club International (LCI), with the knowledge that many of the athletes would have a better chance of competing well—and a better life—if they could only see the finish line. Sixteen years later, the LCI-Special Olympics Opening Eyes partnership has provided free vision screenings to 400,000 Special Olympians in 85 countries. More than 150,000 pairs of new eyeglasses, manufactured in partnership with three of the world’s leading eye-care corporations, now improve eyesight for one of the most marginalized populations in the world. “The Lions have done it by harnessing the power of their commitment to the cause of improving vision,” says Lion David Stephen Evangelista, acting president and managing director, Special Olympics Europe-Eurasia. “The Lions have changed the dialogue.” Corporate partnerships with the eyeglass producers are a keystone of the partnership. The eyeglass lenses come from Essilor International, the world’s leading ophthalmic optics company. The Italian eyewear creator Safilo Group, whose brands include Dior, Fendi, Gucci and Kate Spade, provides frames and sunglasses. Liberty Sports of Fairfield, New Jersey, provides protective eyewear for a population that’s prone to injury. Volunteer optometrists, including many Lions, conduct the screenings. Thousands of optometrists around the world participate in one of the profession’s most high-profile volunteer opportunities. Lions have stepped up by volunteering at the screenings, and LCIF has awarded $19 million since 2000 to support the vision program. It’s a growing partnership among two vibrant international service organizations, founded 51 years apart in Chicago—the Lions in 1917, of course, and Special Olympics in 1968. Special Olympics is active in 170 countries, with 1.6 million volunteers serving 4.7 million people with intellectual disabilities. The vision program proved so successful that LCIF has broadened its outreach to people around the world with intellectual disabilities. The vision program is now part of the five-year, $7.8 million Mission Inclusion. Offered are hearing screenings, family health forums, training programs for clinicians, early childhood development seminars for parents and inclusive sports activities, including a unified sports tournament. LCI has allocated $6.3 million for global programing for 2014- 18, with an additional $1.5 million targeted for Brazil. “This shows how civil society can partner with one another to address some of the most pressing human needs,” says Evangelista. “In the developing world, the program is creating a global infrastructure to provide a healthy home for these athletes.” A Special Olympics athlete enjoys his new eyeglasses after a vision exam.
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