Holidays & the Eyes of the Homeless – Valonna Fowler

Last Wednesday, REDF tapped into our organizational roots, and volunteered at the 10th Anniversary of Project Homeless Connect (PHC). Project Homeless Connect has several events each year, which help link homeless and low-income San Franciscans to vital resources throughout the city – such as medical, dental and vision care, housing, food, and employment assistance. Hundreds of people volunteered that day to provide these services at the Bill Graham Auditorium.

This was my second time volunteering in the vision care area. The setup here was pretty basic: 2 rows of folding tables and boxes of jumbled reading glasses that had been donated to PHC. My mission was straightforward. Use sample readers to find a pair that made a newspaper clipping as clear as possible, then find the best fitting glasses.

One of the greatest parts of the day was having conversations with the participants. Here’s the thing: people instantly transform from statistics to human beings when you shake their hand, ask their names, look into their eyes.

One of the first people I met was Michael. His old pair of glasses had broken, and he felt like everything was out of focus. We tried on a few pair and I adjusted the nosepads. These new glasses were going to be his Christmas present. His eyes started to water as he looked through the lenses and the world came into focus. For myself, I couldn’t say anything beyond Merry Christmas.

I met Val, who had diabetes. She had a bright aqua umbrella and wore a tan bowler. I loved her style. She just wanted to feel pretty in the glasses she chose. Diabetes was hard enough to manage, she explained, so ugly frames weren’t going to work. We discussed polka dots, leopard prints, and finally found the perfect pair of striped glasses. She sat for a while, testing the lenses, whether the glasses fit her nose, and even examined the width of the stripes. I have to admit her attention to detail made her a kindred spirit to me. In the end, Val felt pretty as she stood up to continue her day at PHC, wishing me happy holidays as she went.

Then there was Maria. Maria was probably one of my favorite people I met that day. She came to my station wearing a smile, introducing herself right away. She was excited at the prospect of seeing close-up again. She mentioned that a bright color might be nice, helping her find them if she put them down somewhere. Maybe red. I pointed out that red made sense because she had red on both her hat and coat. We giggled and made silly small talk about whether you could ever have too much red. Ultimately, we reached a unanimous verdict that no such thing existed, so I handed her a red case, and she wished me a Merry Christmas.

A little while later, I met another Michael. This Michael put on one of the strongest prescriptions available, and exclaimed how he could see across the room now. It made my heart hurt to know he probably needed a full eye exam, but those appointments are scarce. Once he finished at PHC, he planned to go home and watch TV. He’d moved into an SRO about a month ago and a TV was one of the first items he wanted, because that made it feel like a real home. This was his Christmas present, he said, and his excitement was contagious.

These interludes may read like a disjointed tapestry, but they’re all part of what makes San Francisco. The volunteers that day were few compared to the population. The resources were in short supply. Yet an overriding theme kept rising to the top as I dispensed pair after pair of reading glasses. These wonderful, fun, and lively individuals I interacted with aren’t simply a statistic. They are breathing denizens of my beloved city, with stories in their eyes and contributions at their fingertips. To them, a pair of glasses, a meal, a health appointment could be their Christmas present. Why do we hold back our time, resources – ourselves? The people I met last week certainly didn’t.