Hillsdale resident Paul Berman was recently honored at the White House for more than 20 years of providing Special Olympic athletes with free eye exams and glasses.
Berman is an optometrist whose practice is located in Hackensack and has worked with the New Jersey Devils and New York Giants. He has been volunteering with intellectually challenged athletes since the early '90s and is the founder of the Special Olympics Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes program, which has expanded his work to help intellectually challenged individuals in more than 80 countries and 45 states.
The White House included Berman among 11 members of the Lions Club International that it honored with its "Champions of Change" program, which recognizes "ordinary Americans [who] are doing extraordinary things in their communities."
"For the Lions to select me as one of the 11 people they submitted to the White House, to receive this honor of Champion of Change, was humbling," Berman said.
Berman started his work with intellectually challenged athletes at the 1991 Special Olympics in Minneapolis, Minn. He and 46 other optometrist from the American Optometric Association volunteered to give free eye exams to the athletes.
The doctors found that 37 percent of the athletes needed new or different glasses, 66 percent hadn't had an eye exam in more than three years and 20 percent had never even had an eye exam, according to Berman.
"When people [with intellectual disabilities] can't do something, it's often blamed on the intellectual disability," Berman said. "They may not see, maybe they can't hear. They may be in chronic pain. People say, 'well, maybe they don't understand.' We've seen some really dramatic prescriptions that are life-altering."
Berman continued his work at the 1995 Special Olympics. He also found sponsors who donated free glasses to the athletes who needed them. In 1999, he got hooked up with the Lions, who contributed "significant funding" to the project, as well as volunteers from their international network.
Since then, Berman and the Lions have helped more than 90,000 intellectually challenged athletes.
Working with the athletes has been a "transformative process" for Berman. In addition to helping them see, he hopes to help other people "get" the Special Olympics.
"The Special Olympics isn't about pity, it's about acceptance," Berman said.
Berman will have a chance to work with people close to home when the national Special Olympics come to New Jersey in 2014.