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About Utah: He sees the world through a child’s eyes

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MIDVALE — Optician Joseph Carbone always knew the problem was there. Like a dull persistent headache just below the surface, it never went away.

He did his best to ignore it until one day both the problem and the answer walked through the door.

A Navajo Indian boy from the reservation had an appointment to be fitted for a new pair of glasses. The cost was being picked up by an unknown benefactor.

The kid put on his new glasses, looked outside and started to laugh and cry at the same time.

He explained why in one sentence: “I didn’t know trees have leaves.”

“That touched my heart,” says Carbone. “That changed my life.”

He’s not kidding. The incident with the Navajo boy triggered a chain reaction that resulted in Carbone shutting down the optician business he’d spent 25 years building and replacing it with EyeCare4Kids, a nonprofit whose one and only quest is to put glasses on kids who can’t afford them.

“I’ll do this till I die,” says a smiling Carbone, 61, as he sprawls out in an armchair at EyeCare4Kids world headquarters, a 6,000-square-foot facility next to a music store on State Street in Midvale that includes three examining rooms, a shop that churns out 50 or more pair of eyeglasses a day, and a showroom of display cases that show off the finished product.

It looks pretty much like any other optician’s business other than the fact there are no price tags.

“I saw the need. For years I saw the need,” continues Carbone, a native New Yorker who knows how to talk like one. “Many, many children go without eyeglasses. Somewhere between one in three and one in four of all children in America need glasses and don’t have them. Many live in circumstances where their families can’t afford them. There’s a small check each month, and the eyeglass part keeps getting pushed back. That’s a big problem. If a kid can’t see to read or what the teacher is writing on the board…”

He lets the unfinished sentence speak for itself.

Carbone has a soft spot for kids who don’t have much. He was one himself. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, the son of Italian immigrants, and dyslexic to boot, he is no stranger to meager, challenging circumstances.

He came to Utah because of the LDS Church. He joined in New York when he was 19. His sister, a Catholic nun, was his biggest cheerleader.

“She encouraged me to go to church, any church, because she thought it would keep me out of trouble,” he says.

It did that. He was soon serving a full-time two-year Mormon mission — in Italy and after he returned home a church member tipped him off to a job in Manhattan making glasses in the back of an optician’s shop on Madison Avenue. It was 1976. He was paid $1.76 an hour.

He found he enjoyed the work, which led to him enrolling in opticians school at New York City College. When he graduated he decided to move to Salt Lake City, or, as Carbone puts it, “Mecca.”

He’s never left. He found his wife here: “Jan, the best thing that ever happened to me” – and together they have grown a family that includes nine children and, so far, 18 grandchildren.

He and optometrist partner Michael Thain opened “The Eye Doctor” in Sandy, in 1981 and ran their clinic successfully for 25 years.

In 2001, when Carbone decided to start giving kids free eye care, he did it on the side at first, helping on average about 200 kids a year, including a yearly trip to the Navajo reservation with a mobile clinic supported by American Express. Then, in 2006, he decided to get out of the profit-making end of the business entirely.

That was 75,000 free clients ago.

He’s found plenty of support for his cause. Any number of area optometrists routinely provide their services to his clinic at reduced rates, while charity-minded foundations, such as the Sorenson family and others, have lent financial assistance. Deseret Industries regularly sends him temporary help free of charge. And recently, the Salt Lake-based Intrepid Agency came on board to provide pro bono help with publicity.

In Las Vegas, a coalition of kid-friendly philanthropists — including hotel magnate Steve Wynn and his former wife Elaine — heard about what he was doing and helped fund EyeCare4Kids outlets at several schools in southern Nevada.

That’s just the start of the expansion, Carbone hopes. He would like to set up similar EyeCare4Kids outlets at Utah school districts and eventually take the cause nationally and internationally — even back to his roots.

“I one day would like the kid from Brooklyn to go back there and open a clinic,” he says. “That would be the cherry on the cupcake.”

But he knows he needs all the help he can get, which is why, with Intrepid’s help, he is mounting an aggressive public campaign in 2014 to raise awareness and funds. (You can make a donation at any Zions Bank location or by going to eyecare4kids.org. It costs about $35 to fit one child with glasses).

“I hope before I die we can help a million kids get glasses,” says Carbone. “That’s my goal.”

And his vision.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com