‘Before You Can Teach A Man To Fish, You Need To Help Him See The Fishing Pole’
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Playing on the adage that it is better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish, Joseph Carbone, 66, founder and CEO of the Utah-based non-profit Eye Care 4 Kids, says you first have to ensure they can see the fishing pole. “That is what we do at EC4K,” he says.
In under 20 years, the organization has helped about 300,000 people obtain free or affordable eyeglasses. While most of those kids live in Utah, the organization began working with partners internationally almost from the beginning. Every year, Carbone leads a trip to the Navajo reservation that includes parts of southeastern Utah.
Today, the nonprofit operates nine clinics and serves 50,000 people annually.
Eye Care 4 Kids is proving to be resourceful. “Sometimes I feel like a professional beggar,” says Carbone. Much of his time is spent fundraising. He boasts that “97 percent of the donations we receive go directly to the services we provide, helping children have a chance to fulfill their potential.”
A donation of $35 covers the cost of a pair of new glasses for child. Some operating costs are supported by patients with insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid. The nonprofit charges affluent, insured customers market rates for services and invests profits in serving uninsured, low-income patients.
Punam Mathur, the executive director for the Elaine P. Wynn & Family Foundation, which helps to underwrite the annual operating costs for the mobile clinic, says, “As a practical matter, EC4K is the only option for most of the kids our foundation cares about.”
“Children and families in poverty face a tsunami of challenges—among them, lack of access to services, transportation, affordability, and fear (our community has a sizable percentage of undocumented families),” Mathur explains. “The mobile unit meets children where they are at school sites; charges nothing; and operates with a value system that honors, values and serves all people. To use parlance from schools, EC4K earns an A+.”
Before launching the organization, Carbone operated a for-profit business as an optician. After several years of devoting increasing amounts of time to the nonprofit, he made the decision, with his wife, to mortgage their home and transition to full-time work at Eye Care 4 Kids.
The catalyst for Eye Care 4 Kids was a visit to his shop from a young Navajo, for whom he had provided a first pair of glasses. “He put the glasses on and he looked out the window. This touched me so much because he laughed and cried at the same time and said, ‘I didn’t know trees had leaves.’ And that had a profound effect on my life.”
Other people have had similar experiences with their eyeglasses. Wanda Mae Huffaker, a librarian in Salt Lake City, shared hers:
I didn’t realize I needed glasses, or that I was squinting. I was just moved closer to the front of the room each year. Finally, in 5th grade I got the letter from the school and went to the eye doctor. I lived on the west side of Salt Lake County. When I got out of the car [with my new glasses on] I looked across the valley and saw the mountains. I didn’t know there were mountains. Then I walked into the house and looked down and saw grass. Individual blades of grass. I knew if you were down on the ground you could see them, but I had never seen individual blades of grass from any other perspective before. It had always been a big blanket of green. Those were the first observations I made. And I didn’t even know I couldn’t see.
Eye Care 4 Kids launched an online retail shop for glasses at SightTheWorld.com. A portion of every sale goes to fund a pair of glasses for a child who can’t afford them.
Carbone explains a key to his success. “The word is collaboration. I can’t do everything myself.” He collaborates with the philanthropic arms of both the Catholic Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For work in Rwanda, he works with Indiana University School of Optometry and the Rwanda School of Medicine. In New Jersey, it’s Rutgers School of Medicine.
The global need for better eye car is enormous. In Rwanda, on his first visit to rural parts of the country, he found none of the children had eyeglasses. Between 25 and 40% of kids typically need glasses. He says, the UN estimates that 600 million children need glasses and don’t have the resources or access to get them.
Other organizations are also working on this problem, including Global Vision 2020, which offers an innovative, simplified system that doesn’t require an optometrist to provide glasses for just $5. Learn more here.
Vision is essential for education and productive employment. You really can’t teach someone to fish if they can’t see the fishing pole.
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