By Marisa Ramiccio | September 13, 2012
When Oviedo-Winter Springs Lions Club chairman Paul Schwimmer began collecting eyeglasses and setting up eye exams for the sight-impaired residents of Seminole County, he never thought he’d end up visually impaired himself. But during a yearly checkup, Schwimmer’s doctor discovered a problem and sent him to a retinal specialist who diagnosed him with macular degeneration, an eye condition that causes loss of vision.
“He said ‘If you had macular degeneration 10 years ago, I would have told you to get a dog and a cane,'” Schwimmer said.
Schwimmer was able to receive eye injections – six in his left eye and 17 in his right eye – to slow the progression of his macular degeneration. He said he can read large-print books and can still drive in familiar areas, but what he can no longer do is collect eyeglasses for those in need, a long-time mission of both Schwimmer and the Lions Club.
Schwimmer originally joined the Lions Club in Michigan in 1965. When he moved to Central Florida in 1973, he decided to join the Winter Park branch because it hosted meetings at night. He later transferred to the Oviedo-Winter Springs branch once it was created.
“In 2000, the Oviedo-Winter Springs club got started, and being a former Lion, I was one of the principal members of the club,” Schwimmer said. “The new members would ask me what the other clubs did and I said the one thing they do is go out and collect old eyeglasses [for those who] can’t afford them.”
The Lions Club, which formed in Chicago in 1917, officially adopted the cause of sight preservation in 1925, when Helen Keller addressed the club. Schwimmer said that this cause somehow fell on his shoulders, but he took it and ran with it.
For five years, he collected eyeglasses from 44 locations in Seminole and Orange counties, from Lake Mary to the airport and across I-4. One of the reasons he can no longer continue collecting is because he can only see well enough to drive on familiar roads. A request from family and friends also persuaded him to stop.
“One of the reasons I had to give this up is because some family and friends said ‘You’re 81 years old, and while you’re in one of the seedy sections of Greater Orlando, one of these days someone will try to do you harm to steal your truck.'”
Aside from collecting eyeglasses, Schwimmer and the rest of the Lions Club also became involved in setting up eye exams and securing surgeries for those in need.
Because of Schwimmer’s acquaintance with Cindy Shadron, the executive director of The Forgotten Ones charity in Oviedo, the two organizations partnered to assist those who can’t afford eyeglasses or surgery.
“It helps us to know that they can come here,” Shadron said. “We had one guy who needed surgery and we got the guy’s surgery. He was crying because he had been to so many places but he couldn’t afford it. Nobody was helping this man.”
When someone is identified as being in need, a member of the Lions Club meets him or her at the Vine Outreach Thrift Store, which is owned by The Forgotten Ones. The member walks that person through the paperwork and establishes whether or not the person’s in need of financial aid. If they are, the Lions Club will pay $200 per eye per surgery, which can cost up to $5,000. The rest of the cost is picked up by the Lions Foundation for the Blind.
“I love doing it. I’ve helped in excess of 2,000 people, and I felt great about the fact that I’ve been able to help these people,” Schwimmer said.
One of the people he’s been able to help is Genitha Nickson, a volunteer at The Forgotten Ones. Nickson started doing community service under the guidance of Shadron, who asked her if she needed anything. Aside from an ID and her birth certificate, Nickson also needed eyeglasses. Shadron called Schwimmer, who met Nickson at The Forgotten Ones and set her up with a pair of glasses.
“Since I’ve been here, my life has changed a little bit,” Nickson said. “They’ve helped me out a lot.”
Schwimmer’s life, of course, has also changed. Though he no longer collects eyeglasses for the Lions Club, he’s still very much an active member. As the chairman of the club, he’s involved with projects including Right to Sight, which promotes programs that fight blindness and loss of vision. He oversees fundraising events, such as the club’s bingo night at St. Alban’s Church on Aloma Avenue.
“Every penny that comes in is used for the benefit of the neighborhood and the surrounding areas,” Schwimmer said.
But his work doesn’t stop there. He’s also busy training the three Lions Club members who will take over his collection duties, and he’s still helping people who are in need of eye surgery.
“I’ve still got clients who are in the process of getting surgeries and I’m taking care of them until they’re finished,” he said.
For more information on The Oviedo-Winter Springs Lions Club, email Dennis Dulniak at firstname.lastname@example.org.