Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Didn't get a chance to finish your story? Purchase a day pass digital subscription and you'll receive unlimited online access for one day (24 hours). You will have immediate access upon completion of your purchase.

The Oelwein Lions Club has many projects that are seen throughout the community. From the community gardens, the White Cane Days raise funds to support seeing eye dogs and other services for the blind and vision impaired, Lions Park and the Rundle Warthan alcove are beautification projects in the downtown area, and the Hoot for the Lions annual Halloween bash gives area kids a safe place in which to celebrate the holiday.

Of all the service projects that are Lions Club endeavors, perhaps the one that reverberates the most throughout the world is the eyeglasses recycling program. Through this program, Lions in Oelwein, Iowa, can help persons in developing countries around the world see better, to help children with learning in schools and adults to be employed.

For the past 12 years, a handful of Lions and volunteers have been meeting in the basement of local optometrist Dr. Rachel Mortenson’s office. Dr. Mortenson graciously offered the space knowing the Lions are working to help those in developing countries improve their eyesight, where eye care is unaffordable and inaccessible.

Twice each week, on Tuesday and Friday mornings, volunteers spend about 90 minutes sorting, cleaning, reading and recording prescriptions, and packaging donated eyeglasses to be recycled in other countries.

Last week, the group of Jim Arnold, Jerry Clayburn, Dr. Darwin Jack, Mace Reyerson and Rich Witt hit another milestone with the packaging of their 150,000th pair of glasses.

Witt said to get to that milestone they have sorted through roughly one million pair of eyeglasses.

“We are able to salvage about 15 percent of all eyeglasses donated,” Witt said. “If the lens is scratched, chipped, or the frames cracked, we don’t save them. They are disassembled and the metal from frames is recycled to a company in New York. We are not in the business of competing with eyeglass manufacturers or optometrists, just recycling the useable ones in poor countries.”

Witt said it is a time for camaraderie while they work in assembly line fashion. He does the initial sorting between good and non-useable, passing the latter pairs off to Arnold who takes them apart, separating the metal frames from the lens. A shelf overhead is filled with odd and unusual eye wear that has been found over the years.

The good glasses are gently washed in soap and water at the sink and left to air dry. Then Reyerson takes the clean glasses and reads their prescription in an auto lensmeter. He calls out the numbers to Clayburn, who writes the prescription on a label. Clayburn sticks the label on a small plastic bag and passes the bag and glasses off to Dr. Jack, who packages them, and then places them in a shipping box with the others.

Witt explained they work with four or five International Lions groups in the Midwest, from South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin. The shipping boxes full of packaged glasses are picked up twice a year by the Wisconsin Lions Foundation of Rosholt, Wis., located just northeast of Stevens Point. Witt says from there, the eyeglasses are paired up with mission trips and taken to underprivileged countries, where they are eagerly accepted.

“It gets kind of overwhelming when you think of going through a million pair of glasses,” Witt said. Then he looked at the mountain of boxes stacked up in the corner. They are all filled with donated eyeglasses waiting to be sorted. “I guess we have enough to stay busy for quite a while,” he said with a smile.

Witt said that while the Lions head up the project, persons don’t have to be Lion members to volunteer to help. Dr. Mortenson’s office is located at 208 Eighth Ave. S.E. and a separate entrance to the basement is at the back of the building. The project is worked on from 9 to 10:30 a.m. each Tuesday and Friday.