Going global isn’t something new for Kevin White.
As a military humanitarian during his 20-year stint with the U.S. Marine Corps and an additional four years at the U.S. Naval Academy, class of 1992, White, 52, along with his wife Rebecca Guay, 44, formed worldwide connections with those who would later help him enlarge their vision of providing affordable, corrective eyeglasses to remote villages throughout the world.
It’s been 10 years since the Whites founded Global Vision 2020. But the idea of providing vision correction to 2.5 million people in faraway places began 14 years ago.
The Easton-based nonprofit has attracted the attention of a broad range of partners who have helped bring to life White’s simple idea — the USee “dial-snap-wear” eyeglasses — at every step on the journey. Along the way, White has garnered accolades for his vision — and the hard work it’s taken to get this far.
In 2017, White won the National Geographic Chasing Genius Award. In 2018, he won the WeWork Creator Award $1 million grand prize.
The diagnostic device he invented allows local volunteers to help those who can’t see clearly to determine their own prescription using a process called self-refraction. The USee is the core component of the GV2020 vision kit “refractionists” use to make a pair of $3 snap-together eyeglasses. The whole process takes about 15 minutes.
The mission has attracted an ever-widening network of local volunteers, supporters and strategic partnerships around the world, as well as a U.S. patent on May 23.
“We’re excited about the growth potential these days,” White said. “In September 2018, GV2020 was in 15 different countries using multiple models with different age groups, and they all seem to be working. The fact that this works has been really encouraging.”
“He’s never had any doubts,” Guay said.
Over the past 15 months, GV2020 has delivered 34,000 pairs of eyeglasses in 27 nations at the cost of $105,000.
“That’s truly impactful. Especially when you realize we are a staff of six,” Guay wrote in the May edition of GV2020’s online newsletter “The Spectacle.”
With about 2.5 billion people worldwide without access to prescription eyeglasses, the need for affordable vision correction is critical, according to GV2020.
Quality of life, work productivity, education, health and safety are all affected by vision impairment.
The couple says that often poverty isn’t the issue with obtaining eyeglasses — it’s access.
“We have an optometrist or ophthalmologist for every 8,000 people,” Guay said. “In most of Africa, it’s one for every 1 million. So, essentially, it’s like having eight eye doctors on the island of Manhattan or three in the D.C. area or one on the Eastern Shore. You would never get around to seeing everybody.”
“So you roll up in a village and say, ‘Hey we’re going to screen everybody’s eyes,’ and eventually people start to line up, and their faces light up when they put the glasses on,” White said.
“That one 21-year-old kid — he was so elated,” Guay said.
“He put ‘em on, and he goes,” White said as he mimicked the look of wonder on the young man’s face. “His world just …”
“Opened up,” Guay said.
The client looks at an eye chart that’s different from the standard Snellen Eye Chart used in the U.S. The eye chart GV2020 uses has designs like fork tines pointing up, down and sideways while the client wears the USee diagnostic tool that measures the eye’s refractive error — the degree to which one is nearsighted or farsighted.
Turning a dial moves the lens bars on either side of the glasses-like frame, changing the USee’s focus. When blurry vision becomes clear, the USee color-coded diopter number matches the lens needed to correct the refractive error.
“It’s called URE, uncorrected refractive error,” Guay said. “That’s all we correct for.”
The lenses are color-coded and sorted. “If someone dials in a red 4 and a green 2, you grab them and snap them (into the frames),” White said. He hands them to the client on the spot.
The frames come in three colors — tortoise shell, black and blue. Black is the most popular color, but high school students in Mozambique, for example, preferred blue frames.
“With just one day of training, field personnel are able to screen, diagnose, prescribe and assemble the appropriate eyeglasses for the people they serve,” according to GV2020.
“This is not replacing eye health exams,” Guay said. “This really is to fill the void with the 85 to 90% (in which the) problem is with refractive error. So this fills that void at the lowest possible point that we can with teachers, community health care workers, driver’s license office personnel.”
“Success of the USee in ‘self-refraction’ compared to standard refraction was demonstrated in a clinical trial at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University. There is no device in existence that combines the accuracy, low cost, and ease of use of the USee,” GV2020 claims.
One client in northern Namibia was a police officer.
“He clearly had funds for the market price to buy a pair of glasses,” Guay said. “He was just working the gate of a national park five hours north of the city, but there was nowhere to go to get a pair of eyeglasses, so he just hopped in line.”
The couple gave two pairs of eyeglasses to their bus driver who had driven them around for three days. He couldn’t read the third line of the eye chart.
“So I started out as a military humanitarian basically, running humanitarian programs for the U.S. Department of Defense for Africa and Eastern Europe,” White said.
When he returned from his first humanitarian trip with the Department of Defense, White told his wife the eyeglass distribution was “awful.” It was also wasteful. Donated eyeglasses provided a valuable function but didn’t correct the vision of many people. What they needed was a more customized approach.
White’s “analytical brain” prompted him to reason “there’s gotta be a better way to do this,” Guay said.
“I found fluid-filled eyeglasses, so I started working with Josh Silver who invented them,” White said.
Inspiration for White’s invention began with his retirement. “I stayed engaged, learned a lot and then came up with my own idea to sort of bridge the gap. There was a gap between self-refraction technology ... and getting real eyeglasses,” White said.
White’s penchant for tinkering propelled him, too.
“He can fix anything,” Guay said about the man who took watches apart as a kid. “I’ve never had to hire a handyman.”
“(It’s been) mostly a process of discovery. My first thought in 2005 when I was watching donated eyeglasses being given away was we should have some sort of snap-in eyeglasses,” White said. They would be “the key” and also avoid waste.
“Donated eyeglasses are just a terrible waste and you never get 20-20 in both eyes statistically and you have all the other things: astigmatic correction, you have bifocals — but snap-togethers didn’t exist. But what did exist was this device,” he said as he picked up fluid-filled eyeglasses. “And what happens here is if you increase and decrease the silicon pressure, it just changes the power of the lens from a negative 6 to a positive 6, ... but you still didn’t have optimal-looking glasses.”
“So I drew this up on a piece of paper, and I asked a friend of mine whose son does computer programming and I asked if his son, who’s a game writer in New Zealand, if he could put his drawing in CAD, so he did, sent to me and I said, ‘This looks great,’ and then I realized with CAD, I could get this thing 3-D printed, so then I put on Facebook, ‘Hey, does anyone have a 3-D printer?’”
“And another friend of mine (sent a message to) me. ‘What are you trying to do?’ (he asked), and he worked for PolyOne,” White said.
That friend, James Stevenson, had already known Kevin from his military service in England, Guay said.
“James worked with Josh Silver on another fluid-filled device when he was with Corning — I know it’s weird: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know — so James had moved from Corning to PolyOne where it was all plastic,” White said. “It didn’t take long at all to convince him. I showed him my design and he said ‘OK, let me see what I can do,’ and he came back just a couple of weeks later and said, ‘OK, you’re in. I’ve assigned you a designer at IQ Design in St. Louis, they’re going to go over your design with you, and we flew out there and had a meeting, and it was just crazy.”
And quick. Stevenson introduced White to PolyOne’s law department whose director is a chemist/patent attorney. “I had already filed a U.S. patent, and it was two pages, and he said ‘This will not do,’ and he amended it to like 32 pages. All pro bono,” White said.
“The lawyers we’ve had have been absolutely fantastic,” White said. Besides working for free, they are also mechanical engineers. White sent a message to his Naval Academy class page on social media, asking if any were patent attorneys. Through that network, a friend recommended he contact a 2001 USNA alumna, pilot, mechanical engineer and patent attorney Melissa “Mel” Coombes of Lee & Hayes law firm in Spokane, Wash. “She’s a rock star,” White’s friend said.
Finishing a process that began four years ago, and through a series of phone calls, Coombes presented the design to an examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
“We didn’t pay a dime for any of it,” White said. “And we didn’t have to pay for research and development.”
“PolyOne did the lion’s share of the work. They did the heavy lifting,” White said.
But it was Coombes who propelled the project over the finish line and was added as one of the patent’s participating attorneys by PolyOne patent attorney senior counsel for intellectual property Michael Sandbrook.
White estimates that PolyOne saved GV2020 between $250,000 and $500,000.
“No one billed us,” Guay said. “Imagine three years worth of legal work with no billing. Not to mention the research and development. It was probably another $300,000 PolyOne has invested in research and development.”
GV2020 did have to pay the filing fees of about $28,000 for patents in the United States and several other countries.
As of January, the latest iteration of USee lenses are now injection molded. “That was probably another $100,000 investment (by PolyOne) just to get the molds made,” White said.
“Working toward a solution to a world problem of this scale is in perfect alignment with PolyOne’s sustainability goals and commitment to our communities, both local and global,” said Cathy Dodd, PolyOne’s vice president of marketing, on the manufacturer’s website.
PolyOne created a 90-second video detailing this collaboration. “I mean, that’s probably a $20,000 video, easily. PolyOne has been remarkably generous,” Guay said. “They liked his invention.”
Another unexpected partner is helping raise awareness and funds for GV2020. Bicycle Playing Cards has developed a limited edition deck of cards “highlighting 52 post 9/11 businesses and charities launched by the military community,” according to the packaging notes. GV2020’s logo is featured on the eight of diamonds.
Made in the U.S., the “Frontline Leaders Collector’s Playing Cards reveal how the military community is stepping up to the frontlines at home from Main Street to Wall Street. This deck is the first of its kind compilation, demonstrating how the post 9/11 military community is making an undeniable impact across industries.” A portion of the proceeds sold on the site will be donated to the charities featured on the cards.
“We’re not going to create the infrastructure that does this. It already exists, and we just need to give (existing organizations) the tools and the training to do it — that’s Rebecca’s role,” White said. Guay uses her background in government relations and experience in policy analysis to search for grants and partnerships.
“We’re looking for those larger partners that can have more sustainable delivery, that can take it to multiple villages,” White said. Sustainability also means that if someone in a remote village breaks her glasses, she will be able to get a replacement pair more easily. At less than $5 each, USee eyeglasses have helped those needing refractive vision correction in Tanzania, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan, Namibia, Haiti, Mali, Philippines, Nicaragua, China, Mozambique, Paraguay, Ivory Coast, and Myanmar. The current June “Overlanding” road trip to Botswana is providing eyeglasses to students in nine rural schools.
According to GV2020’s website, “Clear eyesight is the gateway to education, prosperity, safety and self-sufficiency. Eyeglasses are that gateway’s key. ... With USee, those who never had access to an optometrist will now have the glasses they need to help them read, learn, earn, drive, and thrive.”
“Leveraging Global Vision 2020’s expertise in vision-care logistics and humanitarian outreach, the USee is engineered to serve 2.5 billion people who otherwise lack access to optometrists,” according to gv2020.org. “The USee system enables virtually any villager to perform (refractive) vision diagnosis and snap together corrective glasses.”
Expanding their distribution network among existing health providers is a goal that sends White around the world making personal connections, contacting faith-based health organizations, cutting through bureaucratic red tape and even cold-calling desk officers in embassies and governmental departments. Doors are opening with the Ministries of Health in both Mozambique and Kenya. Especially promising is the possibility of working with Rwanda’s corps of more than 200 motorcycle-mounted health workers who could be trained to check for eye health among the rural poor.
“The beauty of our program” is reliance on local nationals who are trained to diagnose and correct refractive problems. United States Agency for International Development (USAID), for instance, stresses the importance of an effective exit strategy when signing on partners. “We have an almost immediate exit strategy, when it comes to the training and implementation of a distribution program,” White said. He hopes that advantage helps GV2020 get into the USAID program.
White and Guay, along with their partners, believe that eyeglasses are not only life-changing, “they are lifesaving,” Guay said. “Think of driving your car. How safe would it be on our roads if everyone could drive without a vision test? Not all that safe, right? Well, in most of the developing world it is simply a fact that vision care is not part of the equation of getting a license. We’re trying to change that. Not just on a policy level, but by providing affordable basic acuity screening with the USee, glasses on the spot, and safer drivers.”
White explained that in terms of global security, groups like Boko Haram recruit from the ranks of the poor and hopeless in the Global South of the world. In fact, from his experience in directing military humanitarian efforts, building schools and medical outreaches “is do-gooding, but it’s also winning hearts and minds. It’s also saying, ‘Hey, we’re America, and we have resources and we can help you,’” White said.
“The world’s labor force is going to come from the Global South,” White said. “If we can’t ... partner with them and help them get educational systems and help them become self-sufficient in their own health care and their own water supply, their own food supply, then there (are) going to be bigger global issues. Boko Haram loves unrest, they love poverty because you’re much, much easier to recruit.”
GV2020 is working to build partnerships with transportation, education, and health departments, as well as research institutions, and ride-sharing companies to improve road safety.
The corrective lenses are manufactured in the U.S. and come back to Easton where they are sorted into color-coded bags. “We’ve had several successful lens sorting and kit assembly parties at the (Talbot County Business Center) where we have storage space,” Guay said. “Hundreds of hours of volunteer time has made it possible for us to ship USee Vision Kits to nations all over the globe.”
From White’s rough drawings and prototypes to worldwide distribution, the process has been energized by his connections as a Marine, an MBA student and even as a member of Christ Church in Easton.
“Catherine’s another one of those right place, right time, right person sort of stories,” White said. Catherine Baker is GV2020’s full-time Africa program coordinator.
They met Baker in a roundabout way. While White was in middle of his MBA degree program at Johns Hopkins (he finished this year), one of his fellow students asked, “Do you need someone to go to Africa? I’ve got a colleague whose daughter just came back to the U.S. She’s really passionate about solving all these problems.”
Originally from Baltimore, Baker had just moved back from Kenya in 2016 but missed East Africa. Within a week of meeting the Whites, she was back in Africa for GV2020. She worked as a volunteer for two years. “When we got the We Work grant, we asked her to come on full-time,” White said.
Baker has been able to train in Africa with Ken Wood, of Denton. She’s trained with his staff of Lifetime Wells International and connected with Phoebe Reynold’s daughter, Sharon Runge, executive director ex officio of KenyaConnect, an educational mission based in Elkridge. Reynolds is a member of the Whites’ church, Christ Episcopal Church in Easton, which has been “very supportive,” Guay said.
“We meet a lot of people with very varied backgrounds who can be helpful and want to be,” Guay said. Even the Johns Hopkins MBA program “brought down about 20 students who worked about three hours in warehouse and boxed up everything left in that place.”
“Innately, we both want to do something good, but the actual hard work of it and the reason we do it is because we know we have the solution, and we have the skills, and we’re building the team where the skills are available and we can see this through,” Guay said. “We know we’re doing good work. We also know that the solution’s right here and we just have to fine-tune it.”
Both admit they never thought much about vision, even though Guay got her first pair of glasses in high school.
“I was 7 years old when I got my first pair of eyeglasses, and I had very poor vision until I got laser surgery,” White said. “It was hugely eye-opening — an awakening — to realize that there is no access for these people.”
“And (knowing) you actually can make a difference. It feels overwhelming at times because the numbers are so vast, but we’re keeping it simple and just persevering.”
The couple, who have two teenaged sons, made sacrifices to make the vision a reality. They lived off their savings for almost four years, “scraping by,” Guay said.
“And paying taxes on your 401(k) that we cashed out,” White added. Military retirement and medical benefits kept them afloat and made the venture possible.
“When we bought our little house here in 2007, we bought it knowing our mortgage would never be higher than our military (retirement), so we’d always have a roof over our heads,” Guay said.
“And mac and cheese on the table,” White said, laughing.
They both say it’s been worth it. “Well, there’s no turning back now,” Guay said.
“And to get photos almost daily of people getting glasses for the first time in their life ...” White said.
“Whenever anyone sees USee, they get very excited,” Guay said. “(We’re building a) support network, people give money, a lot of people give time and a great number of our friends just share what we’re doing on social media. People share with the world around them.”
The effort to extend the gift of better eyesight depends on their daily effort to get the word out and cultivate donations and grant money. “It’s stressful,” Guay said. “The well will dry up if we don’t continue to pound the pavement.”
“What we really need are local donors who will support a local charity with an international reach that does really good things for the global economic situation, but also for global security,” Guay said.
“Over the next 15 months we’ve come up with a reasonable goal (and tidy number) of 150,000. Easily divisible by 15 — making our goal 10,000 eyeglasses per month,” Guay wrote in “The Spectacle.”
“The cost to provide 150,000 pairs of eyeglasses is approximately $450,000. That means for every $3 donated to GV2020, a person gets clear sight. We think that is a worthy investment.”
“We’re getting a lot more traffic, a lot more smaller donations coming in,” Guay said. “Each week, we have more people signing up for our newsletter, and they come from all over the country.”
“All over the world,” White added.
For more information about Global Vision 2020, including an interactive timeline, videos, grant awards and how to help, visit gv2020.org. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization is based at 12 N. Washington St., Suite 200, Easton, MD 21601.