If you ever doubt the power of a good suggestion, consider Jeff Fenske.
Every few months, he rounds up eyeglasses to help people in other countries see better for the first time in their lives. And it’s all because of something someone said 92 years ago … to a roomful of lions.
The charitable kind.
“The Lions were formed in Chicago by a businessman 100 years ago this year,” said Fenske, 59, of St. Paul. “It really was a way for businesspeople to give back to their communities.”
In 1925, Helen Keller spoke at the international convention of Lions Clubs, suggesting that the service organization become “knights of the blind.”
This particular knight is a lawyer who handles small-business law and estate planning, working out of an office in St. Paul that once held a neighborhood clock shop.
“The main reason I joined the Lions was to give back to the community,” said Fenske. “I asked three years ago to be on the board of the Minnesota Lions Vision Foundation. One of our goals, our tasks, is eyeglass collection.”
This means driving around and picking up castoff spectacles. Typically, he collects about 4,000 pairs of glasses a quarter.
“I’ve got a list of locations where we have boxes — Wal-Marts, LensCrafters, community centers, city halls. Literally all over.”
After they’re collected, the glasses are cleaned, tested for prescription, then sorted by federal prisoners.
The operation includes a recycling center in Sauk Centre, Minn., and a Wisconsin facility.
“They’re given to people who are doing mission trips to Third World countries,” he said, “mostly Mexico, Central America, South America.”
That’s where Fenske’s efforts end up. He doesn’t get to hand them out, but he’s seen the results:
“I’ve seen some videos of people on these trips, and the lines are blocks, if not a mile, long. People come to get tested and fitted, and the smiles! The tears! It’s powerful stuff. People who haven’t seen for years, or maybe ever, get fitted for something and can see again.”
The Lions do more than hand out glasses, Fenske said. In addition to funding eye-related research and surgery at the University of Minnesota, the clubs also sponsor diabetes outreach and a hearing aid project. (Yes, they’ll take used hearing aids, too.)
It’s a great distance between the person who tosses some old specs in a bin and the person a few thousand miles away who can make out the faces of his family for the first time in decades, but there’s one crucial link: the guy who drives around and picks up the bins of glasses.
Lions like Fenske don’t do it for the attention, which is all the more reason to pass along some kudos — and look in that drawer for those glasses you don’t wear anymore.
If Fenske’s bins fill up, he’ll bring another.