Alex Delaney-Gesing of Optometry Times® interviews Joseph Carbone, Founder and President of EyeCare4Kids, a non-profit organization providing professional eye care to low-income visually impaired children and underserved families.
Since its inception in 2001, the Utah-based organization has provided more than 400,000 children with professional eye exams, eye screenings and eyeglasses.
In this interview, Carbone discusses the organization’s mission to deliver services in local communities as well as its expansion into underserved communities around the world.
Below is a transcript of the interview above. Editor’s Note: This has been edited slightly for clarity.
What is the story behind EyeCare4Kids?
Yeah, that’s an amazing story too, it’s been 21 years now. I was this child who was growing up, who needed the services, and I was doing very poorly in school. And so years later, I have this wonderful opportunity to understand the children that we have that we serve, as well as to serve them.
I had a practice with an optometrist partner for many years in the Salt Lake Valley. And we’ve helped many, many people for profit. And we saw the need in many families who couldn’t afford professional eye care. And so we did some services for free.
I volunteered at the 4th Street Clinic in downtown Salt Lake and saw the need. A child came to our clinic… and it was just amazing. It was a day when you took your exam, and you came back a week later and got your glasses. And I distinctly remember, he looked out the window. And he started crying and laughing at the same time. And he said, “I didn’t know trees had leaves.”
There are opportunities in life that point you in a different direction. And this was one. My wife and I and a friend decided to do more. And we started the non-profit organization in 2001, called EyeCare4Kids. And look where it grew. It’s just been an incredible race.
What do you see as your mission and the types of services you offer?
We do vision screenings, comprehensive eye exams and (provide) glasses. And I guess my mission and my vision is to see the world.
How does your organization meet the eye care needs of underserved communities?
So we know that 1 in 4 children needs eye care. And kids who come from the Upper East Side and established neighborhoods, their parents can afford it. But now you’re going to a less economical neighborhood, and their parents can’t afford it. And what we discovered is that there are more children in this neighborhood.
We have physical clinics and also mobile clinics. So if the child can’t come to us, we go to the child. We go to more rural areas and to Native American reservations.
I understand that you also extend just beyond the local community; how did your organization start reaching out to international communities?
We started with Native Americans and rural areas (in Utah), and we started going to different places internationally, and we partnered with different groups. And so we went to Laos and Southeast Asia. We went to Rwanda, we went to South America and Kenya (Africa).
And I am delighted to say that at the end of this year we will be opening our first physical clinic in (Ruiru), Kenya at Kalimoni Mission Hospital.
What is your experience of openness in these international communities?
The people are so wonderful; so grateful. And the need is so great. What we find outside of the United States…there may be one eye care professional for every 1-2 million people. And it is an impossibility for this eye care professional to see so many people.
The reality is that these people will never have a full eye exam or a necessary pair of glasses. So we’re trying to bridge that gap and bring more services to people.
What was the response when you reached out to other eyecare professionals to help them with their international efforts?
It was amazing. For example, we work with a school of optometry. And we do it with Rwanda. We work with two ophthalmologists, friends from Las Vegas. And we are working on Kenya, Africa, with them.
And so, we like to partner with other eye care professionals to do this good work outside of the United States. And we would love to partner with them in the United States. We’re in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and New Jersey, and we’re looking to open other locations.
What should eye care professionals know about vision needs in other countries outside of the United States?
Well, just take the needs and multiply them by 1,000 or a million; the needs are so great. We enjoy working with other professionals. If we work with ophthalmologists, they do their ophthalmology services—diagnose eye disorders and perform cataract surgeries and other procedures.
We then go in and do the glasses part of that — the vision screenings, the auto refractions — and then we provide them with glasses. We love working with them. If other technicians or optometrists want to come with us, we can do more diagnostics, refractions and provide glasses.
For those interested and watching this, how can eye care professionals get involved with EyeCare4Kids to help even more underserved communities?
One of the things we could do is for a doctor in his local community, if he would like to, say, give half a day once a month where he could see children in his local community, we could arrange for these children to be seen by this doctor.
They give back to their community, and it would be really no cost because we would make the glasses for free for that child and then bring them back to the doctor’s office for distribution. So we could multiply that by 1,000 if 1,000 doctors became associate members of EyeCare4Kids.
Is there anything else you would like to discuss?
No, I have the best job in the world. I am so grateful for this wonderful opportunity. Over 400,000 (pediatric patients) have been served. And our goal is to reach 1 million by the end of 2025. It’s happening very quickly.
We therefore need all eye care professionals to join us and help us in this task. And again, together we can “see” the world.