By Melissa Shaw
It was a snowy day when Jennifer Hyde took her two children to get new eyeglasses. She sat, passing the time with the optician, rather than venture back outside into the harsh weather.
“What do you do with the old lenses?” she asked. (“I’m an environmentalist,” she explains. “I’m always curious about that sort of thing.”)
“We throw them out.”
A former 1980s Peace Corps volunteer in the Congo, she knew how precious such resources could be in a developing country.
“So many didn’t have access to eyeglasses,” she says. “The idea that these very expensive medical devices were being thrown out was very disturbing to me.”
That everyday motherly errand and off-the-cuff inquiry just a few years ago has led the Ivy League-educated wife and mom from the suburbs of Newton, to the muddy, rut-filled, dirt roads of Haiti, to the halls of a technical college in Boston, to a cap, a gown, and a new, unexpected profession.
The information Hyde learned that afternoon nagged at her and sent her to the kitchen table, where she researched eyeglass recycling programs, the need for correcting vision in developing nations, and the severity of the issue.
“If you don’t have access to eyeglasses, it really can impair your quality of life,” she says. “If you can’t thread a needle and you’ve been doing seamstress work your whole life, it could have a severe impact. If you have vision loss as a kid and can’t see the blackboard, this is going to have a real impact for your potential for livelihood. What I’ve learned since is that good vision is a really important part of our coping with the world, day to day.”
She discovered that due to lack of access to healthcare in poor countries, potentially serious eye problems and conditions, such as glaucoma and cataracts, are undiagnosed and, therefore, unchecked. What is caught and easily treated in the western world transforms into worst-case-scenario blindness in places such as Haiti.
“In the U.S., we don’t see as much blindness as other disabilities because it’s caught and treated,” Hyde says. “Rates of blindness in developing countries are much higher.”
She remained intrigued by the issue, which led to volunteering with the Newton Lions Club, collecting used eyeglasses around the community. (For 100 years, Lions Clubs worldwide have raised money to prevent blindness, restore sight, and improve eyecare and eye health across the globe.) Part of her volunteer work consisted of bringing collected eyeglasses to the New England College of Optometry in Boston, where students clean, repair, and prepare them for mission trips, where they are distributed.
Hyde shared her interest with a professor and was encouraged to go on a mission trip with Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity International. The nonprofit runs mission trips to developing countries, offering eye clinics staffed by volunteer optometrists (who perform eye exams), optometry students, opticians (who take a prescription and design a pair of eyeglasses), and lay volunteers.
The opportunity came unexpectedly and during a time in which Hyde was trying to decide what to do with her life professionally, an experience to which many mothers can relate. Her children were 13 and 11, and she wanted to re-enter the workforce. She had options — and Ivy League undergrad and graduate degrees in environmental studies and urban planning — but nothing piqued her interest. Until then.
“I hemmed and hawed,” she admits. “I started thinking about going back to work. I was dying to get involved in something again, and every time I tried to think of something else, like jobs to apply for, nothing felt right.”
Then she had an epiphany: “This is what I felt passionate about. I was going to have to do something. This felt like the something.”
As a lay volunteer who “had absolutely no knowledge of things related to eye glasses” and a vocabulary of “rudimentary French,” she paid her own way and signed on for a week-long November 2015 VOSH trip to Haiti.
“I always had an interest in Haiti after reading Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World,” Hyde notes.
The team’s base was in Cap-Haitien, a port city on the country’s north coast. Every day, the group would pile in their van and travel to villages, setting up clinics in schools, churches, or health clinics, where the goal was to see as many people as possible.
The group saw hundreds of patients each day. Optometrists conducted eye exams and wrote prescriptions for glasses or referrals for those who needed further treatment or surgery. Hyde’s job was to as closely as possible match a patient’s prescription to the donated glasses available and fit them to the new owner. Sometimes the team would return to its hotel at the end of the day to find a group of prospective patients waiting in the lobby.
“The word had gotten out that there were eye doctors there,” she says. “We’d open all our boxes and examine people right in the lobby.”
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with 59% of the population living on less than $2 a day. The country of 10 million offers only a handful of optometrists and opticians. Most are located in cities, which leaves 70% of the population without easy access to eye care. By the time Haitians seek help, they’re almost blind.
“I was in shock, Haiti is such a poor country,” she continues, the upset still evident in her voice years later. “You cannot believe how impoverished people are.” Yet, “I loved it. I was incredibly moved. It was really a powerful experience.”
Impacted by the need, the poverty, and the people she met, Hyde returned from Haiti with a new goal: She wanted to work for a nonprofit that helps people in developing nations get eyeglasses, but wondered, “How am I going to get from here to there?’”
Enter Professor Blair Wong.
A fit at BFIT
A passion for the cause and an inherent desire to learn and prepare for the trip led Hyde, like many, to Google, which is where she found the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.
Known as “BFIT,” the school is a 109-year-old technical college in Boston’s South End that offers two-year associate’s degree programs in 12 fields, ranging from automotive technology and biomedical engineering technology to construction management and electrical engineering.
“In preparation for the trip, I didn’t want to just stick eyeglasses on people. I really wanted to understand what I’m doing,” Hyde says.
She found Opticianry Department Chair Wong, told him about her upcoming trip, and asked if she could sit in on a class to try and learn a little about optics before she went.
“It was an unusual request for sure,” Wong remembers. “I thought it was so nice of someone to have the vision of doing that kind of work, volunteering to go out of the country to do something good for the world.”
The department happened to have a course covering community service, which includes preparing donated glasses for mission trips exactly like Hyde’s.
“It was perfect timing,” he recalls. “It’s amazing how these things come together.”
Which led to his offer: “If you have Wednesday mornings free, why don’t you come in to class, meet my students, and we’ll put you in the assembly line.”
The class was split into stations: one to wash the glasses, another to repair and refurbish, replacing screws and nose pads. From there the eyeglasses are aligned and an instrument is used to determine and record the prescription. From there, they are labeled, bagged, and boxed.
“The students were so excited to have a person who was going to be personally delivering the glasses that they were refurbishing,” Wong says.
Hyde spent a month of Wednesdays at different stations, “And at the end of the four weeks, she was well versed in everything she needed to know to go on the mission,” he notes.
A serendipitous bonus, one of the optinciary students was Haitian and taught Hyde several Creole phrases that would be helpful in the clinic.
“She really enjoyed getting to know the students, not just learning about the optics of dispensing glasses,” Wong says. “She connected with each of the students and listened to their stories. They really embraced her.”
Hyde hit it off so well with Wong and his students, he asked if she would return after her trip to tell them about it. Hyde did them one better: She returned will a full-fledged PowerPoint presentation, complete with the pictures she took and facts about her trip, and at the end announced she was enrolling in the opticianry program immediately. She would join the students she had bonded with, less than two months after returning from Haiti.
“I never do things the way everybody else does it,” she laughs.
Back to school
In the course of visiting Wong’s class before her trip, Hyde says he suggested she consider studying for a degree in opticianry.
“It made so much sense. How was I going to get off the ground in this brand-new career without having any credentials, academic or professional?” she remembers. “It didn’t occur to me to get a degree.”
But after returning from her VOSH trip, “I decided I was going to kick myself in the butt to try and find a career in this field.”
Because Hyde held a bachelor’s degree, she was able to join the class of opticianry students who started in September 2015 and graduate with them in May 2017.
“It has been amazing,” she says of her time at BFIT. “It’s an amazing place.”
Wong says 80% of BFIT students are the first in their family to attend college, and 33% are adult learners. The school also boasts a highly diverse student body and a 13:1 student/faculty ratio, and 83% get jobs or continue their study.
On paper, it looked like a mismatch. A 54-year-old mom from the suburbs returning to school, one filled with college-aged kids and returning adults for whom this may be their only shot at a college degree.
“I found it to be absolutely wonderful,” she says. “I’ve loved making my world bigger. I’ve been lucky to go to very elite academic institutions, and this has been my most rewarding academic experience. By far, this is the most satisfying and meaningful to me. This is a place that really cares about students.”
Hyde reports her classmates were enriching and supportive, and the group bonded in everyday ways, from texting to sharing food: “We’re all supporting each other.
“People bring food to class because we’re there for so many hours,” she offers as an example. “Nobody brings food for themselves, they bring it for everybody! It’s a community. It feels like a family. It’s a totally different experience [from her undergrad and graduate years].”
Wong adds that Hyde became a pseudo den mother for her classmates: “She really has made a difference with the group. They had a lot of fun, a lot of camaraderie. I think it’s a very caring class. I’m very proud of what they’ve accomplished individually and as a class, and I really look forward to seeing how they interpret the rest of their lives.”
Hyde took night and summer classes, a mixture of traditional lectures and labs on optics, anatomy, eyeglass design, and more, to keep pace and graduate with her classmates on time, all while balancing home life.
“I’m extremely lucky, and my husband is super supportive of me,” she says. “The hardest part for me is I’ve not always been as present as I’d like to be for my kids.”
In September 2016, Hyde once again returned to Haiti with VOSH, sadly to find the country in even worse shape after being ravaged by Hurricane Matthew.
“Houses were filling up with water, street became like rivers,” she says. “People are literally walking through floods to get to where they want to go.”
The group of 10 set up shop in a hot, dirt-floored school, surrounded by mud and flood water, and saw 1,000 people during their weeklong stay. With nine months of opticianry education under her belt, Hyde reports the state of eye health “seemed that much sadder, that people were dealing with these eye problems that I knew were so easily correctable.”
Since returning from that trip, finishing her final months of schooling, and graduating with her classmates in May, Hyde has taken and passed the two written and one practical exam required to receive her Massachusetts optician license. Now she’s able to look for work as a licensed optician and pursue a germ of an idea: to start a program to train and employ Haitians to give eye exams, determine prescriptions, and make and sell eyeglasses, providing jobs and greater access to eye health care.
“For years I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” she says. “I feel so lucky I stumbled into this.”
Adds Wong: “I never imagined she’d do what she ended up doing.”