Retired optometrist with mobile onboard lab annually visits Bahamian islands to test eyes, build prescription glasses for needy children – all for free.
Tom and Susan Vanderpool were fishing on a friend's boat in the Bahamas some 20 years ago. Tom's career as an optometrist was humming along in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so during some down time his curiosity led him into Alice Town to see how eye doctors work in the islands. He was surprised to learn there were none on Bimini, and an expensive 130-mile flight to Nassau meant most kids in need learned to live without glasses. He half-jokingly told Susan that someday they'd "come back and make them glasses for free."
In 2008, that's what they did, visiting Bimini every January to set up a temporary optometry office in a school classroom where they test student's eyesight, then return to their boat where they craft prescription eyeglasses in a makeshift lab for each child in need.
"Typically about 20% of kids there need glasses," Tom says. "It takes about 30 minutes to build a pair on average, and last year we made and gave away about 500 glasses, so we spent about 250 hours in our onboard lab." That was a banner year for the Vanderpools because it was their first year of retirement. They're now committed to expanding their nonprofit charitable foundation, Vision For Children.
As pleasure boaters, they've owned a 44-foot Gulfstar trawler-style cruiser ("It was too rolly at sea") and a 40-foot Endeavor powercat that was perfect for Bahamian cruising, but had no space for an eye lab. Through their foundation (and funded largely through Tom's patients), they purchased "at great discount" a 70-foot 1981 Hatteras motoryacht from a businessman who admired their work. Aptly renamed Vision, the mobile eye lab steams from Fort Lauderdale to Bimini and other Bahamian islands.
"We've become so well known that within 30 minutes of docking, the whole island knows the eye doctor is coming to visit," Tom says. "I'm the only person in North America with a boat that has an optical office."
The results of their work can be dramatic. While most Americans take eye care for granted, the Vanderpools share stories of parents assuming their children have a learning disability, only to see test scores jump with a new set of eyeglasses.
"We're very blessed to be able to do it — and the hugs we get from the kids and parents is so genuine and full of raw appreciation that it's rewarding," says Susan, who serves as the foundation's director. "We get more out of it, on so many different levels, than we give."
The Bahamian islands' medical system doesn't provide optometric care for citizens. Care is only available on the islands of Grand Bahamas and Nassau, which leaves the outlying islands without local eye care and travel costs prohibitive to most families.
Since 2008, Dr. Vanderpool has performed more than 1,500 optometric exams and provided thousands of glasses for all children in need. As they build their foundation, they're networking with high-end eyeglass frame manufacturers like Oakley and Ray Ban, which donate discontinued frames. A large lens manufacturer donated 4,000 lenses with a wide range of prescription power.
"I don't have a job anymore, so what we need is the money to go there," Tom says. "In the five months we were there last year, we spent $39,000 for fuel, marina dockage, airfare, and food." Through their foundation website, the nonprofit 501(c)(3) seeks volunteers and donations, holding out hope for a corporate sponsor. Beyond donations, volunteers can join them aboard Vision to help support the mission while enjoying the sights, scenes, and culture of the Bahamian people.
Regardless of sponsorship, the Vanderpools plan to continue their work for years to come. "You can only go to a pretty island so many times without a purpose," Tom says.