Chesterton Tribune

Millions served: Westville inmates recycle eyeglasses for the Lions

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They work in an airless cinderblock dormitory.

They make 20 cents an hour.

All of them are paying a debt.

And in some of the most impoverished countries on earth, nearly 6 million people have these men to thank for seeing clearly—perhaps for the first time in their lives—the world around them.

Since 1994, inmates at the Westville Correctional Facility—the DOC calls them offenders, perhaps to remind them insistently of their past mistakes —have been sorting, cleaning, repairing, and shipping used eyeglasses for District 25-A of the Lions Club International as part of its global vision mission.

Chesterton Lion Tom Lee is a liaison to the program, he visits the prison every week to oversee operations, and recently he invited the Chesterton Tribune to tour the facility.

* * *

Ryan’s our guide. He’s intelligent, polite, and gracious. He’s just finishing a three-year jolt for dealing cocaine.

It’s hard to hear him, though, as he takes us around. The dorm has no air-conditioning, it’s something like 97 outside and feels like an oven inside, and the fans—they’re all over the place—make a helluva racket as they blow hot air from over there to over here.

It’s a prison dorm, all right, no one would mistake it for anything else, it’s dingy and cramped and gray. Except for the walls. Ryan is rightfully proud of the walls, splashed by great rainbows of color: murals painted by the inmates themselves. They’re bright and cheerful and they depict the history of Lions International, the Eyeglass Collection Center at Wanatah, a world map of Lion countries.

Also painted on the walls: testimonials from those who have passed through the program.

* * *

Many of us have traveled roads that were a result of choices that we made. But we learned that ever on the roads of recovery, we can and we are making a difference in the lives of so many people both young and old.

* * *

Ryan’s first stop: the classroom where inmates must first complete a seven-week optometry course arranged through Purdue University. Once a week the students are tested, a Lion grades the exams, and—if they want in—they’d better score at least an 85 percent.

All participants in the program are cross-trained in each of 11 jobs. They’re taught to use lensometers to read eyeglass prescriptions; to sort them by single or bifocal vision, by men’s, women’s, and children’s models, and by designer and vintage styles; to mend broken pairs and to cannibalize and recycle the unfixable ones.

* * *

God has blessed us with eyes to see, so always keep your eyes on the prize.

* * *

As of June 30, 2012, inmates at Westville Correction had processed a total of 5,967,089 pairs of eyeglasses for the Lions, since the beginning of the program in 1994: enough to outfit every man, woman, and child in the cities of Chicago and Los Angeles with spectacles, if every man, woman, and child in those cities were farsighted.

A million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking real tedium. But hey, it’s prison, right? It’s not supposed to be exhilarating. Buddy on the lensometer reads about 300 pairs a day, 800 a week. Charles in repair fixes 500 a week, 1,500 to 2,000 a month. And LaJae in recycling touches “hundreds, hundreds, hundreds every day.”

“Not the most glamorous job but it’s necessary,” Ryan says. “It’s like a factory.”

“Only nicer,” he hastens to add.

There are perks, though.

Look for guards. See any? You don’t. All 25 inmates in the program are considered “minimum security,” Ryan says. “It gives us a break to come up here. We don’t have COs (correction officers) up here telling us what to do. We govern ourselves while we’re working.”

Inmates who successfully complete 2,000 hours of service in the program—it takes about a year to do that, Ryan says—also get six months cut from their sentence.

And there’s something else, more intangible. Or maybe the most tangible part of the whole thing. “We’re helping,” Ryan says. “It’s life changing.”

* * *

Thanks to this program I have learned that things you do for yourself die with you, things you do for others live forever.

* * *

In shipping Tom is packaging a Lions order for 57,880 pairs. It’s a 202-case order: so many men’s bifocals, so many women’s singles, so many children’s. “Lady’s glasses get the biggest orders,” Tom says. He doesn’t know why. To fill this order, inmates tasked to the lensometers may have to read 100,000 pairs.

Down in repair, Charles is grinding them out. If he can’t fix a pair, he strips it down. “I’ve got thousands of screws,” Charles says. “Nothing goes to waste.” Especially the designer labels and vintage frames: the Guccis, the Versaces, the Hilfigers, the cat’s-eyes, the Buddy Holly horn-rims. These Charles makes wearable and sets aside. Later they’ll be sold on the Internet by a Lions affiliate and the proceeds used to purchase lensometers, at $1,600 per.

“Whatever we give the Lions, 30,000 pairs, they give us,” Ryan says. “The glasses rotate in and rotate out.”

* * *

Thanks to the Lions Club and this program for being part of a mission that made me part of the light and warmth at the end of a cold and dark tunnel.

* * *

Ryan’s no fool. He knows that the odds are stacked against ex-cons, that a lot of the men he knows in the joint are, or will be, frequent fliers. But he’s got a life to go back to: a machinist’s job waiting for him, a young daughter. And Ryan vows never to return. “No way. No way. No way.”

“Never give up. That’s what I’ve learned working for the Lions. That’s what I tell my nieces and nephews. Never give up. You can make a difference.”

Editor’s note: A drop-off box labled “Eyeglass Recycling” is maintained by the Chesterton Lions Club in the southernmost drive-through lane at 5th/3rd Bank at 302 Broadway. Enter via Fourth Street.



Posted 8/2/2012