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While in Mexico conducting examinations on blind patients in rural areas, optometrist Jordan Kassalow discovered a surprising fact . The majority of his patients were not blind — they merely needed a good pair of glasses.

More than a decade later, providing glasses to people in developing counties has become Kassalow’s life work. Kassalow, who gave PennSEM’s annual Coleman Social Impact Lecture on Tuesday, cofounded VisionSpring.

VisionSpring operates 15 fixed and mobile optical stores, selling affordable glasses to people in developing countries. They have also created an army of community health workers — starting with women in Bangladesh — who have fit people in their communities with glasses and educated them about the importance of wearing them.

“Vision is not just a health issue, but an opportunity,” Kassalow said. “For many, not having glasses is not just an inconvenience, but it is the difference between providing or not providing livelihood for a family.”

Not having proper vision can lead to children dropping out of school, adults losing their jobs and car accidents, he said.

This problem led to the start of VisionSpring and its ultimate goals — to have people, mainly women, in developing countries serve as “bare-footed optometrists,” providing eye care for their community.

Partnering with the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee , VisionSpring gave glasses to 50 women to distribute, then 500 women and then 5,000 women. As of a few months ago, VisionSpring provided 35,000 community health workers with glasses to sell.

The company is also a main recipient of Warby Parker’s buy-one-give-one program. Warby Parker’s Niel Blumenthal , who graduated from Wharton in 2010 , and Klassalow worked together at VisionSpring before Blumenthal attended Wharton and co-founded Warby Parker.

The company is growing rapidly. Founded in 2001, it took the company 10 years to reach their millionth customer and they expect to reach their two-millionth customer in the next few months. Their ultimate goal is to have 10 million customers in the next 10 years.

They also hope to increase the good they can do by partnering with governments. This “eyelieance” hopes to find out why lack of eye care is such a huge international problem and characterize vision issues as a fundamental foreign policy issue affecting nearly every aspect of life.

“No matter how effective and successful we are, as a small and under-resourced organization, there is no way we can take care of this problem alone,” explained Kassalow.

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