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Glasses ministry helps restore sight in other lands

8/13/2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: Photographs are available with this report.

A UMNS Feature By Annette Bender*

All over the country, United Methodist churches and other groups pack up used eyeglasses and ship them to an address in Maryville, Tenn.

The boxes - marked "fragile" and "glass" and bursting with bubble wrap - arrive almost daily at Fairview United Methodist Church. The office workers say they delight in seeing where the boxes originated.

Someday, the eyeglasses will be shipped to an overseas mission. Until then, the new arrivals will join some 20,000 other pairs in a church storage room or the 10,000 pairs that Tom Beard keeps in his living room.

As director of "Glasses for the Masses," Beard is responsible for stowing the eyeglasses as well as getting them back into circulation. The 7-year-old ministry has supplied thousands of glasses for more than 30 missions, including Methodist Mobile Medical Clinic in Paraguay and Operation Classroom in Liberia. Missions have also been served in Costa Rica, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ukraine, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya and Venezuela.

The eyeglasses come and go from a small office in Fairview's basement, where Beard and eight regular volunteers do the bulk of the work.

"First, we remove the packaging," Beard says. "People are very careful with their packages - especially when they are sending them to God - so a large percentage of what comes in the boxes is wrapping and paper. We can't store all that."

Unpacked, the eyeglasses are stored until they can be cleaned in the church dishwasher, often by a Boy Scout troop or Sunday school class. Then it's just a matter of time before volunteers test every lens in every pair of glasses for prescription strength. They use a machine called a "lensometer," which Fairview's congregation donated $2,200 to buy in 1995. The lensometer spits out a slip of paper containing the prescription. The paper accompanies every pair of glasses on the way to the mission field.

Glasses for the Masses has 500 donating groups in its database, from nearly every state. "I don't think we've received any packages from Alaska," Beard says with a smile.

The glasses come in all shapes, colors and sizes - some even with rhinestones or colored lenses. Most donations come from United Methodist groups. On this day, volunteers open boxes from First United Methodist Church of Van Nuys, Calif., and Sedge Garden United Methodist Church in Kernersville, N.C.

Located in the Holston Annual (regional) Conference, Fairview has received little publicity for its ministry and so far hasn't seemed to pursue it. "God is leading this ministry," Beard says frequently.

The ministry started in 1995, when Fairview Sunday school classmates Tom Tate and Jerald Johnston learned that the local Lions Club had collected a stash of used eyeglasses that had yet to be distributed. The son of an optician, Tate knew that it is illegal to distribute eyeglasses in the United States without a doctor's prescription.

"But there is such a need in other countries for these eyeglasses that our country is just throwing away," Tate says in a telephone interview.

Glasses for the Masses was born when Tate and Johnston offered to take the glasses from the Lions Club, acquired machinery through Tate's father to test the lenses, and found missions that could use them. One of the first beneficiaries was the Paraguay mission led by Fairview members Mark and Jo Waltz.

The Waltzes, who are sponsored by the Mission Society for United Methodists, still receive frequent shipments from Glasses from the Masses. "They have been almost our sole supplier," writes Jo Waltz in an e-mail message.

It's through their mission and the Mission Society that most people learn about Glasses for the Masses, says Beard, who took over as the ministry's volunteer director after Tate moved to another church.

Glasses for the Masses has grown from dispensing 200 pairs of glasses the first year to 10,500 in 2001. The ministry sends out fewer glasses than it takes in because the prescriptions on hand don't always match the needs. "Americans tend to be near-sighted," Beard says, "but we get more requests for (far-sighted) lenses."

However, Beard has struck up relationships with two Georgia optical schools that will take old frames and replace unusable lenses with new ones. He also gives away or lends out special instruments called "focometers," telescope-like devices that help missionaries identify their patients' prescriptions on the spot. Each focometer costs $500, obtained from checks that sometimes arrive in the boxes with eyeglasses. Donations from individuals inside and outside the Fairview congregation also help pay for shipping and other expenses, Beard says.

Evidence that the east Tennessee ministry is restoring sight to people in other lands is apparent through letters received by Fairview, as well as through Web sites and e-mail notes.

"Recently, Mark fitted an older man with a great pair of glasses," a Web site for Methodist Mobile Medical Clinic of Paraguay reports. "He smiled because he finally had a good vision … and began to dance a jig to prove how well he could see!" In a separate e-mail message, Jo Waltz says that she and her husband "pass out over 1,000 glasses a year to people who cannot see well. … This program and the people in it are a blessing to us."

Missionaries Marion and Mary Woods, who operate clinics in churches and schools in Costa Rica, see their impact increasing through Glasses for the Masses. "This ministry opens doors to a wider field of service and witness every year," they write in an e-mail message. "It is a way of taking surplus and no-longer-used glasses to make them available to people who otherwise would not be able to see and read.

"We believe that is another way to fulfill the words of Jesus: 'Take up the pieces that nothing be lost,'" they write. "It is one more way to help people to have the life that is more abundant in quality and spirit."

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*Bender is editor of The Call, the newspaper of the Holston Annual Conference.

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