Penn Valley Pundit: Lions set sights on eyeglass project |

Penn Valley Pundit: Lions set sights on eyeglass project

Folsom Prison is the stuff of legend ” Johnny Cash’s immortal January 13, 1968, concert, and more recently, Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of the “Folsom Prison Blues” singer. But on an average day, when there is no entertainment buzz and the inmates go through their routines, a group of them do quiet good deeds in the name of the Folsom Prison Project for the Visually Impaired.

Eight members of the Penn Valley Hi-Graders Lions Club and four spouses went to Folsom Prison recently to walk the locked corridors and spend some time with the inmates who take donated eyeglasses the Lions Clubs collect, then clean , analyze their prescriptions, tag them and route them to needy recipients.

Folsom Prison processes 100,000 pairs of eyeglasses a year. Some 16 inmates participate in the program run by officer Bob Schmitt, a Lions Club member. Don Ring is the chairperson of the Folsom project for Lions Clubs in District 4-C5, which encompasses the Sierra Foothills.

The Penn Valley Lions have collected more than 800 pairs of glasses over the past year from various drop-off points in the community.

“We wanted to learn what happens after they (eyeglasses) get to Folsom. We were in for a big surprise,” said Ina Elrod, club secretary and president-elect. “Touring the project we were all in awe of not only what is being done but also the commitment of the people participating in the project. We had to keep reminding ourselves of where we were.”

Some of the men working on the eyeglass project are lifers and many of them got into trouble when they were young, says Elrod. One lifer, a computer programmer before he was sentenced for murder, is designing a computer program to help blind people fill out government forms on the Web, she said.

“Each prisoner explained to us what they were doing. They are so articulate and know what they are doing, and they have no bad attitude,” said Elrod.

“For the inmates, the project is a regular workday. It takes a lot of work to read the prescriptions,” she says, and the inmates relish the time spent working and learning the skills of Braille transcription and processing the glasses.

“It’s either that,” she said, “or sit in your cell, pump weights or walk in the yard.”

Some of the project inmates hope to be paroled and find jobs that use their skills outside prison.

In addition to processing eyeglasses, the Visually Impaired Project also records books on tape, does Braille transcription, video closed-captioning for the hearing impaired, and applies for grants for the costly equipment needed to analyze the eyeglass prescriptions.

To help pay for the eyeglass prescription reading machines, the Penn Valley Lions Club created its own cookbook at $10 each and so far has raised $2,500 to donate to the project.

Eyeglasses processed through Folsom Prison wind up around the world. Doctors volunteering in Third World countries take them along to hand out after eye exams. Locally, some of the glasses are given out at the annual Veterans Stand Down at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. Others are donated to the homeless.

“People should know that this program exists and collecting old eyeglasses is so easy,” said Elrod. “They can even be drugstore reading glasses.”

You can bring your old eyeglasses to drop-off boxes at Holiday Market, Dr. Beilstein in the Holiday Shopping Center, the Coldwell Banker office in Wildwood Center, the Hospice Thrift Store in the Penn Valley Shopping Center and the Firefighters Auxiliary Thrift Store on Spenceville Road.

In other parts of the county, there are drop-off boxes at Larry & Lena’s Pizza in Alta Sierra, SPD in Nevada City and the Community Center at the Fairgrounds.

For more information on the Visually Impaired Project, the Lions Club, or to purchase a cookbook, contact Ina Elrod at 265-3245.


This column celebrates the people, places and activities that define the Penn Valley, Rough and Ready and Smartville areas of Nevada County. If you have an interesting person or subject to feature in this column, or a newsworthy item, please e-mail

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