Tampa's Lions Eye Institute expands its size and impact

Since its founding in 1973, Lions Eye Institute for Transplant and Research has helped some 160,000 people see the world around them better.

The Tampa-based nonprofit organization's national reach and impact continue to grow. In August, LEI, which works to restore patients’ eyesight through tissue donation and transplantation, announced the acquisition of Seattle-based SightLife, one of the United States’ largest eye banks.

With the merger, LEI-SightLife, as the nonprofit will be known until a rebranding in 2023, becomes the largest nonprofit eye bank, tissue recovery and ocular research center in the world. LEI and SightLife have served a combined total of about 500,000 people since their inception. It’s expected that more than 12,000 additional men, women and children will be able to benefit from the combined services of the merged organizations.

According to LEI, the new partnership will increase the number of vision-saving transplants done each year, build bonds between physicians treating the approximately 12.7 million people living with corneal blindness worldwide and get more than 20,000 corneas to those needing them around the world.

Lions Eye Institute President and CEO Jason Woody says LEI will have corporate offices in Tampa and Seattle, local Florida offices in Fort Myers, Melbourne, Tallahassee, Gainesville and Pensacola and an office in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Woody, 53, who has been with LEI for 32 years, will split his work weeks between Seattle and Tampa. From those offices, he will help coordinate a staff of more than 300 employees and 100 volunteers between LEI and SightLife. Additionally, the current LEI will annually serve 25,000 clients domestically and internationally combined, with about 3,000 of them from Florida. 

“With this merger, we just recognized an opportunity to serve more; I want to credit both boards of directors for wanting to make a larger impact on a global scale and really sightline their expertise,” says Woody, a fourth-generation Tampa native and 1987 Chamberlain High School graduate. “It was really a hand-in-glove opportunity. Our board wanted to serve more individuals and we could do that by combining our resources.”

LEI’s mission is to bring connectivity between eye tissue donation and transplantation. LEI and SightLife are both focused on the recovery, evaluation and distribution of eye tissue for transplantation, research and education.

And as another educational tie-in, LEI has moved into preventative care for children in Title 1 schools through vision screening. The organization gets students vision screened and has glasses made for them the same day. Through the Hillsborough County Tax Collector and Title 1 schools, LEI also has a vision screening bus managed through a partnership with Glazer Vision Foundation. The reconfigured recreational vehicle has been updated with screening and eyeglass-making equipment. 

Prior to the 2021-22 school year, a vision screening at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, served 400 children, with nearly 100 of them receiving new eyeglasses.

“They started school with brand-new glasses and they wouldn’t have had that opportunity prior,” says Woody. “This has been a focus for us, so if (students) have eye conditions, we can address those earlier. And if they need glasses, they can get them; and all the service is completely free.” 

The recent merger with SightLife will also enhance outreach efforts to head off future eye diseases that might require corneal transplants. LEI operates through donations, contributions, grants and recovery services. Those donor opportunities give the public a chance to step up and leave a legacy. 

“As far as signing up to be a donor, you really get a chance to change someone’s life,” Woody says. “I think we all believe in life that we’re destined to leave things better than we found them. Here’s an opportunity. By signing up to be an organ, eye and tissue donor, you can change someone’s life who can’t help themself. At the end of the day, it all comes from the generosity of individuals; we always want to be respectful of those who gave their gift.”

For information, go to Lions Eye Institute or call (813) 289-1200.
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Read more articles by Paul Catala.

Paul Catala is a freelance writer whose work has been published across Florida, the U.S., and internationally. He has more than 30 years of experience working at the Charlotte Sun-Herald, the Tampa Tribune, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Provo (Utah) Daily-Herald, The (Lakeland) Ledger, and the Associated Press. He has a degree in broadcast telecommunication from the University of Florida and did post-graduate study in journalism at the University of South Carolina. Now living in Lakeland, Paul is an accomplished musician, playing keyboard and piano both solo and with bands around the Tampa Bay Area.