When it comes to angels, Shay Hamilton could certainly qualify.
Through her Compton-based, non-profit Angels for Sight organization, Hamilton helps deliver the gift of sight to hundreds of underprivileged children and adults by offering eyeglasses at no cost–and the big hearted entrepreneur pays for it out of her own pocket.
As the director of community outreach for the Los Angeles Eye Institute several years ago, Hamilton was struck by how many underprivileged children and adults needed eyeglasses.
“We were seeing kids who did not know that the sky was blue or that the trees had leaves on them because they didn’t have glasses,” recalls Hamilton.
When her job was eliminated in 2005, Hamilton sprung into action and founded her own organization to offer needed eyewear to the underprivileged. She named the organization Angels for Sight. But her road to open the clinic was not smooth.
“First, I needed to find a building for Angels for Sight,” said the 48-year-old entrepreneur. “When I was working for the Los Angeles Eye Institute, we used to set up our mobile van near this abandoned building on Alameda Street in Compton which had been vacant for 30 years. I thought it would be a perfect location.”
Hamilton visited Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin and shared with him her dream to come to Compton to provide eyeglasses for the uninsured. “He welcomed me with open arms and urged me to go look for a building,” Hamilton recalled.
“I told him that I wanted that abandoned building on Alameda Street, but I was told that the building had recently been given away at a council meeting. But I wasn’t going to worry about it because I felt that the building was mine in my heart.”
Two weeks later, Hamilton received a call from the Compton city manager who said that the building was once again available. “The council unanimously voted for me to have the building,” recalls Hamilton.
Once the building was secured, Hamilton realized that the structure needed extensive renovations. “The building needed new central air and heating, the windows had to be replaced, and I had to do new landscaping. I had to put new flooring in, widen the restrooms and create a lab,” recalls Hamilton, who took out a $75,000 second mortgage on her home to complete the repairs.
While Hamilton was renovating the building, she said many “angels” appeared who donated their time to get the building in shape. She was especially heartened when architect Clyde Allen drew up blueprints for the building and donated his services for only one dollar.
While the renovations were occurring, Hamilton said she became puzzled after noticing a lump in her right breast. “I went to the doctor and had a mammogram. I found out that I had breast cancer,” said Hamilton. “I had to have my whole breast and lymph nodes removed.” Hamilton endured six months of chemotherapy. “Then they found another cyst in my left breast,” Hamilton recalled. The doctors removed her second breast, leading to a double mastectomy.
Despite the personal trials and tribulations, Hamilton opened Angels for Sight in April 2007. “I wrote letters or cold called optometrists on the phone to ask if they could donate their time,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton now has 13 optometrists who visit the busy clinic to examine the uninsured. “They come all the way from the Inland Empire, Torrance, Brentwood, Century City, Beverly Hills, and Bellflower,” marveled Hamilton.
And other volunteers, or “angels” as Hamilton refers to them–regularly donate their time to keep the clinic running smoothly. They are Mary Gaddis, Joanne Smith, Lena Cole Dennis, Louie Cervantes, Sharon Lyde, Betty Marcelin, B. J. Moore, Sabrina Lockridge.
And both children and adults are delighted when they step through the doors of the clinic and enter the brightly colored building festooned with cartoon characters and the whimsical handprints of former patients that decorate the hallway.
Hamilton said that Angels for Sight never lacks a steady stream of patients. “We get referrals from the drug courts, shelters, health fairs, schools and the community,” said Hamilton, who said the clinic sees about 150 patients a month.
“When the patient comes in, we examine their eyes. Once they’re examined, the doctor writes the prescription. Once they select their frames from us, I drop the glasses off at a lab located in Rialto. Within five days, I’ll pick them up and dispense them to the patients.”
Hamilton said she sympathizes with families who may not have the finances to provide glasses to their children or loved ones. “If there’s five people in the household and they’re only making $24,000 a year and you have to choose between a roof over your head or glasses, the roof is going to win.”
But Hamilton said she will continue to provide glasses for the underprivileged and uninsured.
“Once a child or adult puts a new pair of glasses on, their self-esteem is lifted,” said Hamilton. “It feels good to know that I have actually helped someone else’s life become better.”