By Steve Sears
New Eyes for the Needy, a 501(C)(3) Not-for-Profit organization, was founded by a trailblazer: a 64-year-old woman, during the Depression era, who was way ahead of her time. And her vision, seeing that eyeglasses are available for all (there are 14,000,000 people worldwide alone that can’t afford them), is still a challenge being met today.
Jean Gajano is the New Eyes for the Needy Executive Director. “It was in 1932 – almost 88 years ago,” she states, citing the organization’s history. “Our founder was a Short Hills resident; her name was Julia Lawrence Terry, and she lived I believe on Ferncliff Terrace, which is in the right behind where our building is now. She was volunteering for the American Red Cross in downtown Manhattan. She noticed that a lot of the applicants couldn’t see to read their applications. So she came home – and many of those people were applying for food and for clothing – and she knocked on her neighbors doors and asked if they had any unused spectacles that she could use, and she would put them in a shoebox and on her desk at the American Red Cross. When people came in to fill out those applications, she would offer to lend them the glasses. I suspect most of them probably were reading glasses.”
Terry also realized that the frames were mostly made from gold, and gold back then was worth about $1,300 per ounce. She took these frames to a smelter in Newark, had them melted down, and with the money she collected started arranging for and funding doctor’s appointments for people and buying folks eyeglasses. Since Terry was operating during the Depression, she could not ask for money. Therefore, she utilized wisely all the media of the day – newspapers, magazines, radio shows – and even went on a speaking tour. She also continued to ask people for what they had: their unused glasses. Before she knew it, her house was filled with glasses. Several years later, nearby Christ Church (Terry’s parish) offered to let her use the basement as an operation center, and decades later when it became too small a space, New Eyes for the Needy in 1962 found its current space.
“It shows you,” says Gajano, “the challenges of our mission that are just as relevant today as they were almost 88 years ago. We still adhere to that same mission: we still provide eyeglasses to people who cannot afford to obtain them.”
New Eyes for the Needy has two programs. First, it purchases glasses via social service agencies online for United States-based adults and children who can’t afford to buy them on their own. In 2019, that number served is at 20,000. Second, the not-for-profit also accepts, recycles, and distributes donated glasses to the poor overseas. In the past year, that total reached almost 400,000.
The public can help by volunteering, by sorting through glasses so they can be recycled for overseas shipment; by monetary donations and funding; and donations of gently used eyeglasses that are in good condition.
“Good vision, clear vision, never goes out of fashion” says Gajano. “It should be a priority, and it should be just as important as preventative medicine or immunizations. It’s that important to our livelihood.”
Eyes for the Needy also accepts, in addition to eyeglasses, jewelry, small giftware, watches and the like for its thrift shop. New Eyes for the Needy is located at 549 Millburn Avenue in Short Hills. Visit www.new-eyes.org for more information or call (973) 376-4903.