At 22, Maple Grove resident Cindy Rogers attended a routine appointment with her local eye care physician when she was living in Ohio. When she received a new pair of glasses weeks later she discovered they did not correct her vision. Doctors soon diagnosed Rogers with keratoconus, a degenerative eye impairment that steepens the cornea. Twenty years later the disease left Rogers legally blind in her left eye. She received a cornea graft in 2003.
Activist Helen Keller approached Lions International in 1925 and forever changed the fight against blindness and vision impairment. She challenged Lions leaders to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.” Her call to action spurred the International Sightfirst campaign. Years later, this initiative is strong not only among the Lions organization, but also through several Maple Grove past and present residents, including Rogers.
The Maple Grove Lions Club drew from this inspiration and advocates against blindness through several programs and events each year. Lions President and 15-year member Ken Kumpala says this is the club’s primary focus, although they are also involved with other worthy causes.
The club holds a year-round eyeglasses drive with drop off locations at Bass Lake Family Eye Care, the Maple Grove Community Center and several other spots. “Lions Recycle for Sight” donates eyeglasses both locally and internationally. The Lions Club also hosts a yearly golf tournament in collaboration with the Rotary Club. This year’s tournament is on June 13 with a tee time of 1 p.m. The Lions Club donates all proceeds to the Minnesota Eye Bank, Leader Dog for the Blind and organizations that support hearing loss.
“I love seeing the participation of everyone out there and seeing them enjoy it,” Maple Grove Lions Club member and Tournament Coordinator Richard Kentzeoman says.
The Lions’ most notable contribution to the fight against vision impairment began years ago. The Minnesota Lions Eye Bank stores and anonymously donates cornea, one of the most needed transplants, and sclera transplants. The Minnesota Lions founded the Eye Bank in 1960 and it is now one of the largest eye banks in the world. It has provided corneas for more than 27,000 surgeries worldwide. Rogers received a transplant from the bank in 2003 and volunteered in the years since with the eye bank as well as with other organizations.
“What they do is life restoring,” Rogers says. “They gave me my life back. The donor gift gave me my life back.”
Doctors diagnosed Julie Anderson with retinitis pigmentosa, a blinding, progressive and untreatable disease of the retina, in 1999. Her doctor gave her the information for an organization he thought she should join. She attended her first Foundation Fighting Blindness meeting and learned it was searching for a president. She has been leading the MN chapter since.
Last year marked the Foundation’s first stab at Dining in the Dark, a dinner that allows its diners to briefly experience vision impairment. It doubled the Foundation’s donations, and Anderson says it now will be an annual event.
For 20 minutes during the entrée portion of the meal, participants wear blindfolds under dim lights. Servers leave the meal a surprise, forcing diners to question the food on their plates.
“We want to give people that taste of blindness, and hopefully realize that this is just one of many struggles that people with vision loss face,” Anderson explains.
The event takes place in mid-May. Individual seats are $250 and full tables, with added benefits, cost between $2,500 and $10,000. The Foundation also hosts a Vision Walk each September, a grassroots fundraiser that sees thousands of participants.
Donna Hawley, who owns Maple Grove Pearle Vision with her husband Jim, served on the Dining in the Dark’s board last spring and participates in the walk regularly. Hawley and her staff partner with elementary schools in the district to donate eye exams and eyeglasses to children who cannot afford them. Pearle Vision is also a drop-off collection for One Sight, a worldwide organization that donates eyeglasses to underprivileged countries.
“It’s something that we have always been interested in,” Hawley says. “We try to do every bit we can to give back to the community.”
To donate to the fight against blindness and vision impairment, visit the Maple Grove Lions Club, the Pearle Vision location in Maple Grove (13195 Weaver Lake Road) and the Foundation Fighting Blindness.