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Tampa nonprofit is now world’s largest sight center

Mark Parker



Tampa's Lions Eye Institute and Seattle-based SightLife agreed to a merger earlier this month. Photos provided.

Following its recent acquisition of Seattle-based SightLife, Tampa’s Lions Eye Institute is now the largest eye bank, tissue recovery and ocular research center in the world.

The two nonprofit organizations reached a merger agreement earlier this month. According to the announcement, the acquisition of SightLife – also one of the nation’s leading eye banks – will help Lions Eye provide the gift of sight to an additional 12,000 men, women and children in 60 different countries.

Jason Woody, president and CEO of Lions Eye Institute, told the Catalyst that his organization could now provide around 25,000 corneas to the blind and visually impaired every year.

“Our board has always been a visionary of helping as many people as possible,” said Woody. “And by bringing these two – really the top organization’s in our field – together, we can expand our services for those that are in need.”

Founded in 1973, Lions Eye has given the gift of sight to over 160,000 people worldwide since its inception in 1973, according to its website. SightLife is four years older, and the two nonprofits have over 100 years of combined experience, a rarity in any industry, said Woody.

Jason Woody, president and CEO of Lions Eye Institute.

Lions Eye will now employ over 300 people, said Woody, and there may be some slight attrition following the merger. However, he plans to keep “almost everyone.” Lions Eye has acquired other nonprofits, and Woody said he is proud of the organization’s high retention rate.

He believes the merger will increase upward mobility opportunities, which includes Seattle staff transferring to Lions Eye’s headquarters in the 112-year-old F. Lozano Cigar Factory building in Ybor City – or vice versa. He also noted that employees could take advantage of Washington’s hiking, mountains and four seasons or Tampa Bay’s year-round sunshine and marine resources, depending on their preference.

Many people in the region, said Woody, fail to realize that Lions Eye serves as a bridge between tissue donation and transplantation. He explained that his teams are responsible for recovering corneas and other eye tissue when Floridians – and now Washingtonians – register as organ donors with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“I consider them heroes,” he said. “Even though you went in there perfectly healthy, you thought to yourself that you really want to help somebody else in their time of need.”

Lions Eye, said Woody, prides itself on helping those unable to help themselves and called that a wonderful, yet at times overwhelming, feeling. The nonprofit also provides surgical training and innovative technology to its global healthcare partners.

While Lions Eye’s employees may not realize how they are changing each individual’s life, he noted the daily challenges the blind face when attempting to carry out mundane tasks that others take for granted.

Woody relayed that he often tells people to close their eyes for about five minutes and try to continue their normal functions.

“You may know your way around your home, and you may get yourself around the office, but that’s really about it,” he said. “A lot of cities – including Tampa – aren’t designed for people visually impaired, nor is society.”

Lions Eye, said Woody, prides itself on helping those unable to help themselves.

About one in 70 people are blind, and Woody said the ratio is astronomically higher in developing countries. He explained that providing surgical training and preventive care to global partners – in addition to Lions Eye’s services as an eye bank – is akin to the old adage of teaching a man to fish rather than just giving him a meal.

International surgeons, added Woody, are often well-trained but lack the resources, equipment, or corneas to help patients. So, he said, Lions Eye also teaches them how to procure their own local tissue.

“We want to ensure that every donation that comes from a family is put to good use,” said Woody. “That could be domestically or internationally, but we want to ensure that we honor the family’s wishes and maximize the gift to help as many people as possible.”

As Lions Eye calls Tampa Bay home, it is no coincidence, said Woody, that Florida has one of the shortest waiting lists for corneal transplants. He said people often tell him that the organization is one of the region’s best-kept secrets and do not realize its local and global impact.

Following the acquisition of SightLife, Lions Eye is undergoing a rebranding. Woody said that process is still in the early stages of development, but the nonprofit’s leadership wants to “take ownership and responsibility for the philanthropic space of what we do.”

“The new name that we decide on will have a much larger global appeal.”

To register as a tissue donor, visit Donate Life America’s website here.

For more information on Lions Eye Institute, visit the website here.


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