Joseph Carbone with kids who have received free glasses
05/14/2014 at 01:00 PM EDT
Joseph Carbone can still picture the Navajo teen in his office, trying on his first pair of eyeglasses, paid for by a benefactor.
"Wow," the boy told him, laughing and crying at the same time as he looked out the window. "I didn't know that trees had leaves."
It was on that day in 2001, says Carbone of West Bountiful, Utah, that he knew he should close his optician business and start giving away glasses to children in need.
"That kid touched my heart," he says. "He literally changed my life overnight."
Taking out a second mortgage on his home and lining up donated services, Carbone, 61, built EyeCare4Kids
into a full-time nonprofit in 2006.
Today, with a clinic in Midvale, Utah, and two school-based units in Las Vegas funded by casino magnate Steve Wynn, Carbone and his 11-person staff have provided free exams and frames to more than 75,000 kids.
"The need is so great, somewhere around one in three or one in four American kids need glasses, but their parents can't afford them," says Carbone. "If kids can't see what the teacher is writing on the blackboard in school, they give up and drop out. A single pair of glasses can change everything."
Carbone struggled with his own eyesight as a child growing up in Queens until his parents finally saved enough to buy him a pair of glasses when he was 17. He knows firsthand the struggles that families like Wayne Urcino's face.
"Joseph is a godsend," says Urcino, who has a family of five. "Every person in my family needed glasses, but insurance wouldn't cover them and we couldn't afford them. Now for the first time in years, we can all see how beautiful the world is."
Ultimately, Carbone hopes to help a million children see more clearly.
"That's the dream," he says. "I'd love to be able to give glasses to every kid who needs them nationally and internationally. There's nothing like giving somebody the gift of sight. I plan to keep at this until the day I die."
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