LI-based Marchon Eyewear gives the gift of sight to those in need

Joel Kestenbaum, an optometrist at Optix Family Eyecare Center in Plainview, volunteered last summer to work alongside Marchon employees at a two-day event with the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, where more than 160 adults and children received free glasses. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

By SHERYL NANCE-NASH Special to Newsday December 24, 2014 12:19 PM

It's been more than a year, but Barbara Siminerio still remembers the woman in Atlanta whose comment card made her cry. That woman was one of 4,000 people who received free eye care -- courtesy of Melville-based Marchon Eyewear Inc. -- during World Sight Day in October 2013.

"She told us in her card that the day before she had gotten a flat tire, so she was faced with having to choose between replacing her glasses that would cost about $500 and getting her car repaired," recalled Siminerio, of Farmingdale.

After receiving her glasses, the woman filled out the card, writing: "As a single person, this means a tire for my car and a belt to keep it on the road and maybe even a slice of pie. Thank you for this gift that will go on for more than just a day in so many ways!"

Marchon, a company founded in 1983 by three friends and acquired in 2008 by California-based VSP Global, has a philanthropic spirit and a simple philosophy: "We help people see." It offers a range of programs to manifest that mission on Long Island, across the United States and around the world.

Through Eye Make a Difference and VSP Mobile Eyes, Marchon donates tens of thousands of pairs of glasses annually. Marchon also partners with eyecare practitioners nationwide to collect used glasses for use on global mission trips. Eyes of Hope includes a 501(c)(3) global charitable fund that directs VSP Global companies' community engagement dollars, enabling individuals and companies to take tax deductions for supporting eyecare projects around the world.

The Sight for Students program for needy children 19 and under provides a free eye exam and glasses so they can have the best eyesight to do their schoolwork.

Giving away glasses

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Marchon is the world's third-largest manufacturer of optical and stylized eyewear, including Calvin Klein, Nautica and Sean John. The company sells more than 18 million frames a year and is the first manufacturer of designer frames for Google Glass.

Since 1997, VSP Global has invested $168 million in free eye care and eyewear, according to Daphne Engle Laughridge, company spokeswoman:

More than 920,000 people have received help to improve their vision;

The company's mobile eyecare clinics — which are outfitted with state-of-the-art exam rooms and dispensaries that feature Marchon frames — have been driven more than 345,000 miles to deliver free eye care in times of disaster such as superstorm Sandy and hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as at community events across America.

Optometrist Joel Kestenbaum, 60, of Optix Family Eyecare Center in Plainview, and his wife, Judy, an ophthalmic dispenser, both volunteer. This past summer, he worked alongside Marchon employees at a two-day event with the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown.

More than 160 adults and children received free eye care and new glasses there. The couple volunteered for six hours on the first day of the event, which Kestenbaum said was "eye-opening."

A lot of people are doing without, he said, recalling one woman who had cataracts that eyeglasses would not correct. Kestenbaum said the team arranged for her to get a free consultation for medical care. The experience was so rewarding that Kestenbaum will be one of 10 optometrists who will travel to the Dominican Republic next month with Operation TLC and the Pujols Family Foundation. Marchon will be among those donating prescription and nonprescription sunglasses to TLC Laser Eye Centers, which is sponsoring the trip.

Marchon has 2,300 global employees who raise funds every year for charities that benefit the local community. Employees raised funds during the holidays for Reading Is Fundamental, the nation's largest children's literacy nonprofit and its longtime charitable partner, The Guide Dog Foundation/America's VetDogs. In the past, charities such as Hauppauge-based Long Island Cares/The Harry Chapin Food Bank and the John Theissen Children's Foundation in Wantagh, beneficiary of Christmas toy drives, have received assistance.

Besides Marchon, VSP Global's vision care units include VSP Vision Care, which has 71 million members and a network of 30,000 eye doctors; Eyefinity; VSP Optics Group and VSP Retail. VSP Global reported $4.4 billion in revenues in 2013, a figure that gives Marchon and the others the financial backing to do charity in a big way, according to Engle Laughridge.

Marchon and the other VSP Global businesses came together in the wake of superstorm Sandy in October 2012 to provide free eye care and glasses to 6,000 New York and New Jersey residents affected by the natural disaster, and also provided support and services to 10 eyecare practices.

Optometrist Daniel Mirkin's office in Rockaway Park, Queens, was flooded so badly that he was essentially out of business after the storm. Mirkin, 54, knew about VSP Global and sought them out. VSP Global came to the rescue, paying Mirkin for working in the mobile vans. He spent about five days over a couple of weeks traveling around Far Rockaway and Coney Island giving eye exams.

"People lost glasses and contacts, but many were able to get glasses on-site," Mirkin recalled. "The mobile vans are a great facility. A lot of good was done."

Mirkin was able to rebuild the main floor of his office, Mirkin Vision, in six months. Not only did he benefit from the income and moral support he received, but he took pride in helping. "Marchon stepped up with its free services; their competitors didn't," he said.

This year, Marchon employees volunteered with VSP Mobile Eyes for two days to provide free eye care and new glasses to Long Islanders through the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown.

This past April, the company's global vision focused on customers thousands of miles away. In Soweto, South Africa, Marchon was among VSP businesses that launched the "We See: A Child Eye Health Project" with the hope of providing free eye care for 30,000 children over the next three years. Marchon, through its licensed brand Nike Vision, is donating all of the glasses.

"We partnered with a local organization, a soccer program with a day camp," said Mark Ginsberg, 59, of Manhattan, Marchon's senior vice president of global marketing. "Now we have relationships with local doctors there and we have U.S. doctors who will go to Soweto."

Charitable priorities

One key to Marchon's successful community initiatives is the breadth and depth of its partnerships with nonprofits and other organizations.

"We have taken existing relations to the next level, moving beyond the company simply raising money," Siminerio said.

This past fall, VSP Global's mobile clinic hit the road to Chester, Pennsylvania, one of six towns chosen by the White House as needing federal assistance. There, hometown hoops star Tyreke Evans of the New Orleans Pelicans showed up at the Boys & Girls Club. Not only was there free eye care, but Evans also hosted a free basketball skills camp for youths at Chester High School, and VSP Global partnered with Reading Is Fundamental to purchase books for the event so attendees went home with free books.

In addition to working closely with several charitable partners as part of her job, Siminerio is big on volunteering. She has traveled with VSP Global's Mobile Eyes on events, some of them weeklong, but what she saw in Atlanta last year caught her by surprise.

"I had no idea what to expect," she said. "When I arrived at 8 a.m. for a 9 a.m. event in Atlanta, there were 600 people waiting."

She is known for spreading the word among employees about the rewards of volunteering. In part she's preaching to the converted: In 2013, VSP Global employees raised about $50,000 for local charities and community organizations, according to Engle Laughridge.

At a time when many companies are still cutting back post-Great Recession, VSP Global continues to spend millions of dollars helping those in need, she said. For Ginsberg, doing so doesn't require sacrificing dollars and cents.

"You can afford to do what you deem a priority," he said. "A total business strategy has to involve giving and good work. You can have a viable business model that includes charity."

SIGN ME UP

The best way to volunteer is through VSP Global's eyewear donation program.

Through Eye Make A Difference, you can donate your glasses to help someone else see. Simply order a free eyewear donation box, collect gently used eyewear in your office or organization and send the box back to VSP, which will pay for shipping. The glasses donated are cleaned, refurbished and labeled for VSP Vision Care doctors to use on global eye care missions. To get started, click on "Eyewear" Donation at globaleyesofhope.com.

YOU MIGHT CONSIDER ...

Several other local organizations and nonprofits are on a mission to improve and save people's eyesight:

Long Island VisionWalk, Foundation Fighting Blindness

Contact: Ro-Ann Rabanillo, events manager, 212-244-1470; RRabanillo@FightBlindness.org

Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind Inc. in Smithtown

Contact: 631-930-9000; info@guidedog.org

Lions Eye Bank for Long Island, North Shore-LIJ Health System in Valley Stream

Contact: 516-256-6990

Heritage for the Blind of Melville

Contact: 631-517-4916; info@800donatecars.com

For more information and opportunities, contact the Long Island Volunteer Center at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org.

By SHERYL NANCE-NASH Special to Newsday

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