We became optometrists because we wanted a way to help others in the world. A pair of glasses to improve vision, while basic to us, can be a life-changing experience for so many others. The scope of need for eyecare volunteers on a global level varies dramatically. Whether that need is halfway around the world or just down the street, there are countless ways we can use our optometric skillset to help those in need.
In this guide, we’ll start with ideas for how to help close to home, then we’ll expand to discussing short-term mission trips—both domestic and abroad. We’ll also take a look at what implementing a long-term service-oriented mindset looks like in our day-to-day optometry practice, regardless of setting. I hope this guide will spark some ideas and provide you with some ways to reach more people in need starting today!
Volunteer opportunities in your optometry practice
We all know that you don’t actually have to leave your office to help someone; we optometrists do it all day long. The setting you practice in will likely determine how frequently you encounter a patient who cannot afford an eye exam or glasses. Many patients have insurance that covers an eye exam but does not cover glasses. Since most of us will likely have the most opportunity to help right where we already are, in our practices, here are some ideas for how to help those in need without leaving your office.
Essilor Vision Foundation’s (EVF) Changing Life through Lenses (CLTL) program helps you get free glasses to those in need. Through this program, you can offer glasses for free to those patients you already examine who may be going through financial hardship and cannot afford them at no cost to you or your practice.
This program provides doctors the materials to do charitable work in a variety of settings; it is a one-stop-shop for free frames and lenses that can be given to those in need. Set up a free account on their website by providing your NPI number and you’re on your way. You can request a frame kit to offer patients, so frames can be lab-supplied, saving time on getting the jobs back from one of their participating labs. Using CLTL frames also cuts down on patient wait time. However, EVF does not require you to use their frames and alternately, other frames can be shipped to the lab to be made into glasses for your patients (hint hint: donated frames from your reps). EVF ships the glasses back to your office at no charge to you via UPS.
EVF CLTL Program Requirements
- Individuals < poverty level without vision insurance for this pair of glasses, as reasonably determined by the provider
- No age or citizenship restrictions
- No charge can be assessed for in-kind hardware
- NPI or license number required to process prescriptions
- Program is available to U.S. based doctors and non-profits
CLTL also provides a number of great resources for how to get started in your community. Resources are available on their website once you sign up. Don’t forget that as an individual, you can make a big difference in your community. You can also partner with other ODs and organize a larger vision event. CLTL can also offer rental portable equipment including a phoropter, portable phoropter stand, and letter/symbol eye charts.
Give a certain number of vouchers per month to a local homeless shelter or soup kitchen; patients can redeem the vouchers for an eye exam and glasses. Alternately, give the vouchers to a group that already provides vision screenings such as Lions Club or Prevent Blindness America for distribution.
Pick one day per month or per quarter and schedule patients through a local charity. You can volunteer your exam services, ask staff to volunteer once per year (or more if they like). Consider rotating charities to provide you with patients. Some options of organizations to reach out to include: homeless shelters, soup kitchens, Head Start, local WIC offices, Title I public schools, Veterans facilities, churches, and immigrant or refugee resource centers. Get inspired here.
If you are an AOA member, sign up to be a part of the InfantSee program where you will offer exams to babies at age six months to screen for retinoblastoma, strabismus, or other developmental eye conditions that can prevent proper visual development.
If you are a VSP provider, the VSP Eyes of Hope program offers gift certificates for eye exams and glasses to people through a variety of charity and non-profit agencies. Connect with local agencies to see if they provide gift certificates and let them know you are interested in providing care for these patients.
Become a sponsor for RestoringVision
RestoringVision provides inexpensive, new reading glasses for international eye clinics (the most common type of glasses needed in developing countries). Your office could provide a buy-one-give-one program, where a portion of each pair of glasses sold from your office buys a pair of glasses for someone in need.
Sell 141Eyewear Frames
If you want to offer your patients more variety in frame choices, 141Eyewear is the perfect place to go. For each pair of frames sold, an additional pair is donated to a person in need. This is a better option for a more affluent practice where you may have more opportunity to give. If you/your office will be doing outreach, you can request a selection of frames for your patients at no charge. These are then, of course, to be donated at no charge to your patients as well. Contact them via the form on their website, let them know the sizes/demographics you are looking to serve and they are happy to help.
Contact frame reps
Lastly, you can contact your frame reps about receiving unused, discontinued frames for outreach purposes. At our health center, we keep several boxes of donated frames in various sizes for men, women, and children available specifically for this purpose.
Community volunteer opportunities
If you’d like to do something more to connect with your community, here are some ways to get out of the office and connect with your community where it needs it.
Create your own Kids' Vision Day
Often, when a student visits their school nurse for a state-mandated vision screening, their treatment stops there. Even if they don’t pass the screening, getting them in for an eye exam can be a challenge. You can fill that need by going to the schools and examining students there instead. Bring your handheld equipment, brush up on your retinoscopy, and get out there!
After the nurses perform vision screenings, they should have a list of students who did not pass. School nurses will typically then contact the child’s family to notify them that the student is in need of a full eye exam. I recommend that nurses ask the family whether they have a family optometrist and whether they will be able to get the child in for an exam. If the family is low-income and does not have the means to have their child examined, the nurse should offer the parents/guardians the option of having the child being examined at school (by you!).
If the student qualifies for free/reduced-cost lunch at school, the family is considered low-income.
For those families who are in need and who are interested, create a permission slip that the nurse can send to the home. The slip should state that the parent/guardian gives permission for you to examine their child and use eye drops if needed during the exam.
Next, we set up a “Kids' Vision Day.” This event can be held in the morning or afternoon at each participating school. You could also combine nearby schools depending on how many kids attend each. The event would involve examining the students, determining a glasses prescription, conducting a health check, and having students choose glasses. You’ll be surprised by how proactive and creative the school nurses will be in coordinating this event. It’s best to schedule students in particular time slots. Have someone from the school, maybe the nurse or secretary, be responsible for bringing kids in small groups to you when it is their turn.
Schedule a date for you and/or your optician to go back to the school to dispense the glasses and make adjustments to the frames once they arrive. We usually estimate about a month for the glasses to be returned from the lab; however, they are often returned much sooner.
Conduct vision screenings/eye exams at a local health fair or back-to-school event
Contact a local hospital or public health organization that runs an annual health fair or back-to-school event and offer to provide eye exams (or even just vision/glaucoma screenings).
Bring hand-held equipment like your trial lens set and diagnostic kit, or rent a portable phoropter stand and eye charts from EVF. I would recommend to also check the health of the eye undilated, and to consider dilating diabetic patients. The risk of eye exams or vision screenings outside of your office is that patients may think they have had a full health assessment when, in the case of a vision screening, that has not happened. If you are going to provide glasses, you should also be checking ocular health.
Keep in mind, patients seen in a health fair setting may not have other resources, so the likelihood that someone will go get a dilated exam after you have given them glasses is slim.
Being able to get the eyecare treatment they need can have an incredible impact on a child's life. Not only will it improve their vision and therefore their quality of life, but early access to eyecare actually improves learning outcomes and opportunities later on in life.
What are some additional things you can do to help? You can hold a "Glasses Drive." Set a pick-up date at a community location or plan to have the glasses shipped back to the patients or to a local non-profit. You can also contact a local soup kitchen or a free clinic and offer to provide eye exams there on a monthly or quarterly basis and use the tools listed above to be able to provide care. Maybe you don’t have the time or interest to plan a vision outreach event in your community, in which case you can just volunteer with one of the many organizations already doing this. Get on the internet and look around—there's sure to be an organization nearby that could use your help!
Join an optometry volunteer event in your community
What are some community-level volunteer opportunities that you can do to help? Read on to find out.
VSP Global Mobile Clinics
VSP has mobile eye clinics throughout the country. They’ve already done the leg work of finding a community in need, working with a local partnership organization, and scheduling patients. VSP will provide all the equipment you need to conduct your exam, which will be performed either on their large mobile RV clinic or elsewhere with portable equipment, depending on the clinic location. VSP will have multiple opticians or staff members on board to help patients choose their frames and take measurements for glasses.
Getting started with VSP:
- Navigate to VSP’s website
- Scroll to the bottom
- Click “volunteer for mobile clinic outreach in your community”
- Fill out and submit doctor volunteer form
You can also ask VSP to offer a vision day in an area you know has great need. There is an application for this as well at the above link.
RAM: Remote Area Medical
RAM provides medical, dental, vision, preventative and educational services to rural areas in need.
To get started, click “volunteer” at the top of the webpage, fill in your information, and select whether you are interested in local clinics that you would travel to, or international clinics!
Special Olympics Opening Eyes Event
The Special Olympic Games consist of athletic events for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Many of these events include health assessments by optometrists, dentists, and other medical professionals. Contact your local chapter to volunteer at an event near you.
Volunteer opportunities within the U.S.
Now that you’re getting fired up about serving your community and realize “community” extends beyond your county or state lines, meet others and see another part of the country. Join a week-long domestic optometry clinic.
Luxottica’s non-profit, OneSight, puts on full-service domestic and international eye clinics to underserved areas. They partner with local organizations to find patients in need. Whether on an Indian Reservation or school within the United States, or at one of their many charitable clinics throughout the world, working with OneSight means working with an incredible team from around the world to provide sight. Glasses are made on-site for those whose prescriptions cannot be fulfilled by pre-made readers. Health assessments are also performed. Check out the FAQs for more info.
Doctors are always in high demand for these trips as we are the rate-limiting step. You can volunteer even if you do not work for a Luxottica organization! To get started, contact Tami Wittenauer at email@example.com to see what clinics need doctors for the coming year.
Open an eye clinic within a community health center
So, you’ve done a lot of local volunteering now and realize you really feel at home working with patients who have limited access to eyecare services. You enjoy simply being able to do eye exams in their purest form, without having to worry about a patient’s financial status. You may be interested in the added benefits of loan repayment programs (e.g., Indian Health Service Loan Repayment) and public service loan forgiveness options. If this is you, maybe a career move where you feel like you’re truly catering to an underserved community every day is the right move for you. Find a local community health center that doesn’t already have optometry and speak with the CEO and/or Chief Medical Officer about opening an optometry department.
Your services are greatly needed. Statistics show that only 18% of community health centers across the country offer optometry services! Opening a department is a mutually beneficial arrangement where you can work and collaborate with a team of healthcare professionals to take care of your patients’ needs.
You can find more resources on how to approach a health center and stats on why they need your help on the AOA site. Or, read this article for a more complete guide to opening an eye clinic within a community health center.
International eye clinics
If you’re at a time in your life where you want to see the world and help people as you do it, then an international clinic might be a perfect way to serve.
Volunteering in an international eye clinic allows you to bring your skillset to people who, in many cases, have never received eyecare. In addition to the optometry volunteer experience you’ll gain, you’ll experience a new culture and see how people live in other areas of the world. You’ll be able to travel to places that you might not have otherwise seen, like India! International clinics build connections as people in distant parts of the world are comforted knowing that someone else cares enough about them to fly across the globe to care for their vision. All in all, it’s an eye-opening experience.
Patient getting examined at a OneSight Clinic in Cuzco, Peru
Types of humanitarian eyecare organizations
Each organization that leads international eye clinics is set up very differently and runs a variety of clinic types. These range from vision screenings and dispensing prefabricated readers all the way to fully dilated exams with mobile labs making custom glasses on-site. Some groups combine with ophthalmologists and perform surgery directly on patients during the clinic. Others will collaborate with OMDs to provide much-needed postoperative follow-up care. Some established groups that provide frequent international (and some domestic) eyecare missions include VOSH, OneSight, and Orbis. You can also contact local churches or volunteer groups who may run volunteer trips in other countries, knowing that you could aid by adding a vision component to their existing outreach efforts.
Over the past decade, I have participated in multiple types of outreach eye clinics, both domestically and abroad. These range from small student groups to teams of 50 international volunteers. I have also traveled with just my husband and a suitcase full of glasses and donated ophthalmic equipment, setting up several grassroots clinics on our own. There are pros and cons to each type of clinic setup. When working with a large organization (Onesight, Orbis), all of the difficult parts of planning are taken care of for you—flights, customs documentation, transportation logistics, and equipment. You just show up and do what you do best!
Patients receiving dilated fundus exams on OneSight trip in Campeche, Mexico
If you decide to lead a trip, you will be responsible for planning the logistics, finding volunteers, ensuring customs forms are properly filled out in a timely manner, and running each day’s schedule. Depending on the organization you get involved with, you may also be compensated for your time. Regardless of which trip you decide to take, you can expect to work very hard. During most clinic days your team will try to see as many patients as possible since there will likely not be another eyecare professional in the area for a long time.
Remember, all these groups and more are always looking for ODs as we are the rate-limiting step in the success of these clinics.
Large international groups
You might want to become a part of an already-established organization. Here are a few that you can look into:
In addition to their domestic trips mentioned above, OneSight does a significant number of one and two-week international eye clinics. You’ll be part of a large group of Luxottica employees from around the world (about 50 team members in total, usually 10-13 of whom are ODs) and work with an equally large team of local volunteers who help with day-to-day logistics, patient flow, and translation.
In addition to their short-term service opportunities, OneSight also has several sustainable clinics they’ve established. If you are on one of these clinics, you will be helping teach locals about optometry and making glasses.
While traditionally reserved for Luxottica employees only, my experience has been that they are always in need of ODs. Contact Tami Wittenauer at firstname.lastname@example.org for a list of this year’s clinics still in need of docs and see if you can participate in one!
Orbis is a flying eye hospital! Participating with them not only means a very unique opportunity to do eye exams on an airplane that has been converted into a teaching clinic and surgical suite but also provide education to eye health teams. You will work to provide eyecare with a team of trained individuals, including ophthalmologists, nurses and eye health workers so that the need for quality care can be met even in your absence.
Orbis’ mission is to end preventable blindness around the world. They do so by providing cataract and trachoma surgery while also providing glasses to patients who need it. But they also do so much more in the way of advocating for eye health to be a part of larger global health care systems. Ultimately, they provide the infrastructure to ensure that good vision can be a lifelong right to everyone around the world.
You can contact Orbis for more information at email@example.com.
You may have been involved with S-VOSH, the student chapter of Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, while you were in optometry school. Becoming involved in your local VOSH chapter is a great way to continue this enthusiasm beyond graduation. Each VOSH clinic is run differently, so individual trip details will vary. Visit this site to see updated clinic lists and contact the leader for more information on a trip that will correspond with your schedule.
Starting your own international one-to-two-week clinic
After you’ve participated in a couple of international clinics, you may have the desire to run your own international eye clinic.
Planning an international clinic
If you decide to organize a trip on your own, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Align yourself with a host organization in the country you will visit—doing so will be required by the Ministry of Health in order to enter the country and also help with planning logistics.
- Consider reaching out to a humanitarian group that performs other volunteer efforts like building homes or providing clean water, and tag along with them if you’re looking for a place to visit with an existing infrastructure for volunteers.
- Affiliate your trip with a volunteer organization in the United States (or your home country), like VOSH or Lions Club International—this will help with processing the Customs forms.
- Advertise for other ODs on VOSH-International’s website or ODs on Facebook.
Trial lens kit with retinoscope.
You will likely use some combination of the following:
- Prefabricated reading glasses—these can be purchased inexpensively through RestoringVision and VisionSpring.
- Custom prescription glasses through a local lab
- Essilor’s ReadyMade glasses (pre-cut lenses that universally fit into either side of the glasses creating custom spherical prescriptions on-site)
- Donated used glasses (collected at your office or donated from VOSH/VSP/Lions Club)—although this approach is really being phased out as new glasses can be fabricated inexpensively today but this remains an option
TIP: fill out customs forms through the host country’s Ministry of Health well in advance (at least two months) as it takes some time to get approved and without doing so, your optometric equipment will not be allowed entry into the country!
Long-term optometry volunteer experiences
Maybe you’ve already participated in short-term eye clinics, and they’ve captured your heart and left you with a desire to serve more long term in another country. One opportunity to use your skills and develop a more long term relationship internationally is through VOSH-Corps. Similar to PeaceCorps, VOSH-Corps sends a U.S. optometrist to teach at an optometry school in a developing country for two years with a living stipend and other benefits provided.
DIY Long-Term International Service
If you prefer providing direct patient care, you could contact international organizations you have previously worked with and work to set up a space where you'll be able to examine patients on a long-term basis. Most ophthalmic equipment companies have departments that donate equipment for long-term international clinics. VOSH’s Technology Transfer Program (TTP) can also offer refurbished equipment for such purposes.
Organizations such as Med-send can pay your loans during your time abroad. Get inspired with stories like Dr. Valerie Colby who has spent her entire career in Tegucigalpa, Honduras or more recent graduate, Dr. Alisha McAfee, who set up an eye clinic in Guatemala.
There are many ways for optometrists to get involved and help people improve their vision and quality of life. As optometrists, we are fortunate that we can fill this role for our patients. Whether we look close to home or across the globe, long term or short term, we can always make a difference. I am happy to speak with you regarding any of these topics further, so please reach out with anything you would like to discuss. The person who needs you most is always the one right in front of you, so go ahead and make a difference in someone’s life today!
Photos from international eye clinics the author has participated in.