COMPTON — Sheldon Thompson, 61, an Air Force veteran, tentatively approached the table filled with 500 eyeglasses at the second annual Veterans and Family Vision Expo and tried on several pairs. He smiled after choosing the pair he liked, obviously pleased with his choice.
“I bought some 99-cent reading glasses from a neighborhood store,” he said, “but sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. These new glasses are a blessing. I know my vision will be much better.”
Thompson was among hundreds of military veterans and their families who attended the expo Nov. 11 at the Sheriff’s Department Youth Activity League here, where those attending received free vision screenings, eye examinations and, if needed, eyeglasses.
The U.S. Veteran’s Administration estimates that one of five vets has a vision-threatening eye disease and many have a lack of access to quality eye care. Funding for vision care for veteranss is virtually nonexistent and poor and impaired vision can contribute to the inability of veterans to enter the workforce or maintain a permanent residence.
Hosted by the Compton-based charity Angels for Sight, the agency provides free glasses year-round to underserved men, women and children throughout Southern California. To date, the agency has provided screenings to more than 22,000 individuals and provided eye exams and glasses to more than 4,000 veterans.
While they waited to receive their new eyeglasses, vets and their families enjoyed a continental breakfast and a holiday luncheon.
Volunteers are only too eager to help Angels for Sight, which is open Monday through Friday.
“One of our board members, Lori Treadwell, an optician, is responsible for making the glasses along with the help of Elite Optical Company located here in the city of Compton,” said Angels for Sight founder and Executive Director Shea Hamilton.
Seventeen years ago, Hamilton, whose agency recently received of the Nonprofit of the Year Award from the California Senate, made it her mission to provide free eyeglasses to the underserved.
“I originally founded Angels for Sight after realizing that many local children in Compton, Watts and Willowbrook were being labeled as illiterate when in fact they could not see well enough to read,” she said. Since then, Hamilton and Angels for Sight have not only provided eyeglasses to needy school children, but to seniors, veterans and low-income community residents.
Michael Johnson, outreach supervisor of homeless outreach at the West Los Angeles Veteran’s Administration, briskly helped a line of veterans fill out paperwork.
“A lot of vets have glaucoma and other eye diseases that they don’t even know about,” Johnson said. “A program like this is so significant for homeless vets who live on a subsistence income because they can’t afford to pay for eye care. Health care usually requires a co-pay, but Angels for Sight offers vision screening and eyeglasses absolutely free.”
Pausing, Johnson said he is gratified to help homeless vets. “They walk away seeing what they haven’t been able to see in years,” he said.
“I have some glasses, but they broke,” said 89-year-old Willie Hood, a Korean War veteran. “They’re going to test my eyes and give me new glasses. I love this service.”
Nelson Johnson, a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran who traveled from Hawthorne to attend the event, agreed.
“I think it’s a blessing to offer vision care to the vets. They deserve these benefits. It’s hard to walk around when you can’t see.”
Dr. Rob Drescher, an associate professor at the Western University College of Optometry and an Army veteran, kept a watchful eye on a dozen of his students as they conducted eye exams.
“Sometimes, an unfulfilled prescription can have a real impact on the quality of a vet’s life,” he said. “With a filled prescription and new glasses, they can read, drive and see pictures of their grandkids.
“This program is so important because I know that vets can fall through the cracks,” he added.
Shell Oil Company employee Andrei Hernandez, one of a handful of Shell volunteers helping out, happily distributed bottles of water and fruit cups to the crowd.
“For me, helping the people is personal,” he said. “I grew up in poverty with a single mother. This is an opportunity to help inspire the kids and to give back to the vets.”
But it wasn’t just veterans getting free glasses.
Ten-year-old Michelle Dunn waited excitedly for her name to be called to receive an eye exam.
“I lost my glasses a year ago, so I’m happy I’ll be getting a new pair,” she said, smiling.
Her brother, 11-year-old Michael Dunn, held up his black-framed glasses that he could no longer wear.
“I broke my glasses so I really need them replaced,” he said.
“I love this event,” said Hamilton, who was busy helping the daylong event run smoothly. “The most gratifying thing is having our wonderful board members, volunteers, doctors and corporate employees come out and be of service to the men and women who have made many sacrifices on behalf of our country.”
Pausing, she added, “I love being of service to people and seeing the smiles on their faces. There’s nothing better than that.”