For months, local student Cordale Denton endured painful headaches and struggled to see the board in class. The teenager’s vision was suffering after his only pair of glasses had broken. “You can’t know what it is like to not be able to afford to do anything about it,” he says.
That’s where Lifelong Vision Foundation came in. The nonprofit, which provides under-served residents with the eye exams and tools to see more clearly, was a light at the end of the tunnel for Denton. Within a week of learning about the teen’s vision issues, the organization’s volunteer optometrists examined his eyes free of charge, and fitted him with a complimentary new pair of glasses.
Dr. Jay Pepose created the nonprofit in 2000 as Midwest Cornea Research Foundation in response to 9/11. In partnership with University of Missouri—St. Louis, the foundation provided a program for free LASIK laser vision correction surgery for first responders in East St Louis. The mission was focused on funding eye research to advance the preservation and restoration of sight, and provide state-of-the-art clinical treatments—locally and throughout the globe. Renamed in 2011 to reflect its expanded mission, The Lifelong Vision Foundation is committed to curing blindness through clinical trials and independent research, and caring for under-resourced individuals by offering complimentary eye exams, glasses and surgeries.
Denton is one of 2,375 clients—from youth at College Bound and Wyman Center to seniors at OASIS—who annually benefit from the foundation’s treatments and educational work. “Most have never had an eye exam; most are in dire need of glasses; some need additional interventions,” notes executive director Marilyn Spirt. Patients are treated in Chesterfield at the state-of-the-art Pepose Vision Institute. “It is so gratifying for me, as well as for the medical staff, to hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ of the teens as each lens makes their sight more clear, and to see the joy in their faces as they try on their new glasses,” Spirt says.
The gift of sight provided by the foundation is life-changing for clients academically, socially and economically, Spirt explains. “One patient, a 31-year-old man with diabetic retinopathy, was going blind because he was not taking care of his diabetes. We were able to stop the progression of his disease and save his eyesight.”
The foundation also is making an impact worldwide. Through participation in clinical trials—from macular degeneration to glaucoma—the organization is bringing cutting-edge interventions to practical use. The foundation also helps fund vision care throughout the globe, including to residents of remote areas in Asia and Africa. With help from the foundation, the Institute's Dr. Nancy Holekamp also recently participated in a mission trip to Haiti, where she administered eye exams and delivered hundreds of pairs of glasses to the under-served population. And the organization’s vision for the future looks toward a program called Engineer the Eye, an effort to combine engineering and vision sciences to create breakthrough interventions to eyesight challenges.
Among fundraisers buoying the foundation is its annual gala, The Eye Ball, set for Nov. 1. Funds raised will help the organization continue its vision education, community programs and research. “We only have one set of eyes,” Spirt notes. “It is a true privilege to make a difference in how people see.”
Volunteer Spotlight: Dr. Jennifer Redfern
When Dr. Jennifer Redfern fitted a teenager with his first pair of glasses, his eyes immediately lit up. “There’s just nothing that compares to seeing someone’s face when they see something clearly for the first time,” the optometrist says.
With the vision of assisting those who cannot afford eye care, Redfern and fellow staff at Pepose Vision Institute graciously volunteer their time to Lifelong Vision Foundation. “I’m very passionate about helping people see, and the foundation shares those same goals,” she notes. Along with Dr. James Rieger, Redfern has provided free comprehensive eye exams to more than 100 teenagers in the College Bound and Wyman Center nonprofit education programs. “We check their prescription, provide them with free glasses, if needed, and examine the health of their eyes,” she explains.
Many of the students are experiencing clear vision for the first time following the eye appointments, and Redfern says that’s very fulfilling. She recalls one teenage girl who had very blurry vision, but had never had an eye exam or glasses to help her study and see the board in class. “It’s very hard to learn if you can’t see well. By helping the students see, we are helping in their education and in bettering their life. It is so rewarding to help these kids see, and they’re all very grateful.”
For more information, visit lifelongvisionfoundation.org.