EASTON — 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, 51, along with his wife Rebecca Guay, 43, formed worldwide connections with those who would later help him enlarge their vision of providing affordable, corrective eyeglasses to remote villages throughout the world.
They also have formed a network of local volunteers and cyberspace supporters for Global Vision 2020.
It all started with a vision that’s attracting partners large and small — and crucial funding — to fuel an ambitious mission. It’s also been a story of serendipitous meetings and associations.
The Easton-based nonprofit has attracted the attention of a range of partners who have helped bring to life White’s simple idea, the patented USee “dial-snap-wear” eyeglasses at every step on the 12-year journey.
“We’ve gotten a fair number of donations from friends and family the first few years, a $72,000 grant in March and a $1 million grant in January this year, which has given us a fair bit of runway to get a logistics footprint established,” White said.
White traveled to Namibia in July, taking sons Owen, 16, a junior at Gunston Day School, and Oliver, 13, who is homeschooled, to help with eye tests and glasses. He also embarked on an August junket to southeast Asia, India, Africa and Europe to build partnerships and create the essential infrastructure to build a sustainable distribution network.
“We’re excited about the growth potential these days,” White said. “We’re 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.
The couple is ready to go bigger. “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.
“We’re not going to create the infrastructure that does this. It already exists, and we just need to give them 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.
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.
According to Global Vision 2020’s website, “The USee … for the past decade, has been dedicated to delivering corrective eyeglasses to the needy and impoverished worldwide. 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.”
In August, White set off on a worldwide networking tour beginning in Vietnam to start a clinical trial with the University of Hanoi Medical School “ to see if we can get this down to 7-year-olds.”
“The New England College of Optometry, the Wilmer Eye Institute (of Johns Hopkins Hospital), the Hanoi Medical School and Global Vision have all partnered to do a clinical trial on children,” White said. “There’s some heady organizations in there. They’re just the cream of the crop when it comes to pediatric optometry.”
Then it was on to India, Kenya and England for outreaches and ophthalmology, optometry or medical conferences.
“The (conference) in England is military-based which would bring him full circle to where he started because it’s a medical innovations conference he found out about,” Guay said. “All of the military-based units he used to work will be there: Africom, Ucom, joint special operations command.”
“So I started out as a military humanitarian basically, running humanitarian programs for the Department of Defense for Africa and Eastern Europe, and that’s when I found fluid-filled eyeglasses, so I started working with Josh Silver who invented them,” White said.
When he returned from his first humanitarian trip with the DoD, 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” and ability to “fix anything” prompted him to reason “there’s gotta be a better way to do this,” Guay said.
Both admit they never thought much about vision, even though Guay got her first pair of glasses in high school.
“I was seven 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.”
“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.”
“And knowing that the solution has to be so simple that anyone can do it — you can educate existing networks to do it,” White added. “You have to think about everything in a different way: How you translate prescriptions, how you write a training manual — we want to make it almost like a child’s book with pictures, like the Shaun the Sheep videos.”
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.
There was also a gap between a fluid-filled system that worked but was expensive and ultimately not practical in remote areas and White’s invention, which “just takes a few hours to learn and you end up with the same pair of useable, durable eyeglasses for three bucks,” he 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 PMed me, ‘What are you trying to do?’ and he worked for PolyOne,” White said. 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 ‘Okay, let me see what I can do,’ and he came back just a couple of weeks later and said, ‘Okay, 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. Now USee is patented in several countries outside the U.S.
However, its use and distribution is limited. For example, in the U.S. and Canada, only optometrists and ophthalmologists can prescribe glasses for the kind of vision correction USee is designed to correct.
The five-year design and production process was relatively quick, White said. Doors opened, and friends were immediately attracted to the concept.
The client looks at an eye chart that looks like fork tines pointing up, down and sideways while wearing something similar to a pair of glasses called the USee. It’s a vision diagnostic tool that measures the eye’s refractive error, the degree to which one is nearsighted or farsighted.
“It’s called URE, uncorrected refractive error,” Guay said. “That’s all we correct for.”
“This is not replacing eye health exams,” Guay said. “This really is to fill the void with the 85 to 90 percent (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.”
The couple say 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 one 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 they get it, 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.
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.”
They 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.
Turning a dial on each side of the frame changes the USee’s focus. When blurry vision becomes clear, the USee displays a USnap lens code, or diopter number.
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.
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.
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 Count 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 USee’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 Global Vision 2020. 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.”
“The networking is really only just starting,” Guay 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.”
To use social media and the internet more effectively, Guay said she’s learning as she’s doing, especially in marketing and communications.
“I’m taking Photoshop classes — I’m actually doing stuff that’s completely out of my wheelhouse,” she said. “I’m a policy analyst. I like to write. like to edit, write grants — and now I’m constantly clicking on a mouse to find the right thing for a website or Facebook. I’m learning Twitter.” She also blogs twice a week and creates a newsletter.
“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 (a), including an interactive timeline, videos, grant awards and how to help, visit gv2020.org. The 501(c)(3) non-profit organization is based at 12 N. Washington St., Suite 200, Easton, MD, 21601.