A Bold New Idea: 1969-1984
Since 1922 South Carolinians have been coming together to serve the Palmetto State through Lions Clubs, first in Columbia, Spartanburg, Orangeburg, Anderson, and Greenville, then in communities statewide. In 1925 their focus became vision and hearing services following Helen Keller’s challenge to be “Knights of the Blind” in the crusade against darkness at the International Convention in Cedar Point, Ohio. For the next 43 years Lions continued to help the blind and visually impaired in South Carolina and advocate for them at a time when public perception and prejudices viewed them as incapable, but there was a need to do more.
In 1968 exploratory committees began researching how a statewide charitable organization for the Lions of South Carolina could be formed. Alone, individual clubs identified extraordinary needs in their communities, and together they realized the potential for a greater impact statewide than what a single club could achieve on their own.
At the State Convention in Myrtle Beach in 1969 the South Carolina Lions Sight Conservation Association (SCLSCA) was created to advance the cause of service to the blind and visually impaired throughout the state. Led by Past International Director (PID) Leon Campbell of Greenville, who served as the first Board President of SCLSCA, and with the support of a state-wide Board of Trustees including PID G. Fred Worsham (Charleston), James H. Austin (Greenville), Lawrence Curry (Greenville) and nine more (including two future International Directors – William C. Ouzts and Jake F. Watson), SCLSCA was chartered on June 24, 1969.
Work commenced quickly on the establishment of programs, fundraising, communications, and staff hiring. The statewide Candy Day fundraising campaign began in 1970. Land was received from the South Carolina Hospital Association for the construction of a permanent Lions building and Eye Bank in West Columbia. Tax exempt status was granted by the IRS in 1973 and the South Carolina Lions Sight Conservation Foundation was chartered the following year to focus on fundraising. A statewide publication, The Palmetto Lion, was created. Past District Governor (PDG) Obe Rosvold was hired as the first Executive Director in 1974 and staff moved into the new office building in Columbia.
Under Obe’s leadership the first Mobile Vision Program was established with the assistance of the South Carolina Commission for the Blind (SCCB) in 1974. A few years later the Affordable Eye Surgery Program was created in 1976. Eye glass collection boxes were distributed statewide in 1981. A new self-contained Health Screening Unit (HSU) was purchased in partnership with the SCCB in 1984.
With the establishment of these programs, services to the blind and visually impaired continued to grow.
Leadership & Transition: 1985-2000
Lion Dick Black succeeded retiring PDG Obe Rosvold as Executive Director in 1985. During this crucial leadership transition, SCLSCA continued its programs and services with resolve. New staff were hired to support expanding programs, a web site was launched, and new equipment kept SCLSCA on the cutting edge of medical developments.
A $50,000 matching grant was received from the Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF) to provide the first Lions Eye Bank Laboratory in the Lions building in 1988 (dedicated by Congressman Floyd Spence), significantly expanding the visibility and resources of SCLSCA. Just a few years later, in 1990, matching funds secured a second $50,000 grant from LCIF to open the Lions Eye Bank at the Medical University of South Carolina.
In 1994 the organization changed its name to South Carolina Lions, Inc. (SCL) to reflect a broader support of programs offered through South Carolina Lions Clubs. Shortly thereafter the South Carolina Lions Eye Bank formally separated into its own independent organization. It would eventually merge with LifePoint in 2003, then Sharing Hope SC, and operates today as Miracles in Sight where it continues to provide tissue for our Eye Surgery Program.
New Programs & Impact: 2001-2017
Dick Black retired as Executive Director in 2001 and PDG Gregg Turner was hired by the board. At the turn of the century SCL created new programs like Recycle for Sight, began issuing South Carolina Lions Club license tags, organized new events like the Fishing for Vision tournament with the Pro Striped Bass Association, and changed its name to South Carolina Lions Charitable Services (SCLCS) as part of the reorganization of the Eye Bank with LifePoint. There was also a renewed focus on the existing structure and impact of SCLCS programs.
A partnership with the South Carolina Nurses Association allowed for a significant expansion of health screenings in schools increasing annual screenings from 3,800 to 12,000. Perhaps most significantly, changes to the Eye Surgery Program and collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) allowed SCLCS to negotiate surgery costs at a much lower rate, which dramatically improved access to this service for clients.
Efforts began in 2005 to purchase property in Ballentine, SC with the intention of relocating offices and expanding camps for the blind. Properties surrounding the existing office building in West Columbia were acquired to re-parcel the land and the SCLCS building was sold to finance the purchase of the new property in Ballentine. Unfortunately, after these sales were finalized infrastructure issues were identified with the new property and a shifting programmatic focus was moving away from camp programs. Staff moved into offices at Market Pointe Center where they remain today. The foundation name was changed to South Carolina Lions Foundation (SCLF).
Despite these challenges, services to the blind and visually impaired continued to grow throughout the 2000s and reached significant milestones. Eye Surgery requests surpassed 100 annually by 2011. Health Screenings continued to expand through partnerships with local schools and Lions Club volunteers, reaching over 20,000 screenings annually by 2015. Funding was secured to sustain the growth of these programs through six-figure gifts from the DHHS for Health Screenings (2014 – 2018) and the BlueCross BlueShield of SC Foundation for Eye Surgeries (2014).
PDG Gregg Turner stepped down as President & CEO in 2016 to return to the corporate sector and Winn Fitzgerald, then Programs Manager, was appointed Interim Executive Director. Winn was named the fourth President & CEO in 2018. To improve messaging and communications the Board of Directors voted in 2016 to merge South Carolina Lions Charitable Services and the South Carolina Lions Foundation into one entity renamed Lions Vision Services (LVS).
Like many civic organizations, membership in South Carolina Lions Clubs has been on the decline. As the primary source of funding for LVS, this decline has created an opportunity to expand donor partnerships beyond the 3,000+ members of Lions Clubs in South Carolina. This has taken time to establish and remains an ongoing priority. When funding was not renewed for the expansion services that occurred in 2014, the Board began to chart a new path forward for LVS.
50th Anniversary & A Pandemic: 2018-Present
A new Strategic Plan was implemented in 2018 to direct LVS through the next five years. In addition to celebrating the organization’s 50th anniversary in 2019 with a gala fundraiser at the Columbia Museum of Art raising over $20,000, this plan creates a new framework for LVS programs and services to the blind and visually impaired in under-served communities across South Carolina. New programs have been identified and added, existing programs have been modified, and some programs have been significantly changed.
Collaboration and support from South Carolina Lions Clubs has allowed LVS to outsource most health screenings to local clubs. While LVS retains some equipment for conducting a few thousand screenings annually (including a new glaucoma machine), most screenings will now be conducted by individual Lions Clubs. This has allowed for the sale of the HSU.
The Eye Surgery Program remains the principal focus of LVS as it is the higher cost and higher-impact program for clients. Our statewide network of healthcare providers who partner with LVS to provide these services at a reduced rate has grown to over 80. Demand for this program has increased roughly 68% and an average of 77 surgeries are performed annually.
A new Vision Technology Program has been launched in partnership with the Storm Eye Institute and now includes numerous partners across the state. While the Eyeglass Recycling Program continues a new Eyeglass Assistance Program began serving clients in Calhoun, Edgefield, and Marlboro Counties where there is no active Lions Club.
Through a series of conversations with partner organizations across the state, three pillars of services have been identified to address the needs of the blind and visually impaired: Vision Loss Prevention, Vision Conservation, and Vision Rehabilitation. These combined with awareness and advocacy needs represent an opportunity to significantly expand LVS programs and services in the years to come.
After navigating the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the LVS Board has successfully completed the 2018 Strategic Plan and has adopted a new 3-year plan to carry the organization through 2026. The Board also approved a staffing plan to restructure LVS, allowing Winn Fitzgerald to step into the new role of Executive Vice President to focus on programs and operations while naming Daniel Prohaska the fifth and youngest President & CEO to lead fundraising, marketing, and implementation of the strategic vision of the organization.
Since the pandemic LVS has expanded the Eyeglass Assistance Program statewide, created the Palmetto Vision Alliance to catalyze leaders in the eyecare field in South Carolina, shifted to a Results Based Accountability Framework for reporting Program Outcomes, and taken over management of the Santee Blind Fishing Event on Lake Marion.
Looking to the Future
Experts estimate that without effective intervention, the blind and visually impaired population is expected to double in the next decade. Access to healthcare remains a major barrier for hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians. Blindness and vision loss continue to impose a more than $2 billion economic burden on South Carolinians annually. Eyecare is now directly linked to our quality of life, mental health, and overall health and well being.
The continued resolve and creativity of Lions Vision Services will be paramount to creating a vibrant and sustainable future for the State of South Carolina where preventable blindness is eliminated, the blind and visually impaired have the resources necessary to live fulfilling lives, and public perception recognizes the potential and dignity of every blind and visually impaired person.
Over half a century after its creation, LVS remains committed to its core mission and is poised for success in its work to empower the under-served blind and visually impaired in South Carolina to live safe, meaningful, and fulfilling lives, while serving as a national and global model for sight conservation and service.