More than 1,700 people lined up for appointments at Bishop's Gallup location during the first 13 days since the program began, owner Doug Bishop said. He anticipates serving 4,000 people before the contract expires Sept. 30.
"It's crazy," he said. "We're doing a couple hundred pairs of eyeglasses per day."
Bishop also operates a store in Farmington.
The money was allocated at the tail end of the Council's winter session in January, Shiprock delegate Leonard Anthony said. The last-minute bill, sponsored by Anthony and Mariano Lake/Smith Lake delegate Young Jeff Tom, called for a Request for Proposals from local optical outlets.
The bill came after the Council voted earlier in the session to appropriate an additional $300,000 from the Unreserved, Undesignated Fund to three other local optical companies.
"Money was left on the floor," Anthony said. "The needs are massive. The legislative language was worded so all people can be served."
Since 1992, Bishop has submitted bids annually to the Council to fund an eyeglass program for the tribe's elders. Only recently, the program expanded to provide eyeglasses for students and any other tribal member in need.
"Navajo elders need services," Bishop said. "They'll sit out there in hogans for years and we won't see them."
Tribal programs such as the Foster Grandparents often are the best avenues to find elders in need of eye care, said Louise Washburn, volunteer coordinator for the Northern Navajo Agency's Foster Grandparent program.
About 30 elders volunteer for the program in the Shiprock area, and when Washburn asked who among them needed a new pair of glasses, about 26 of them raised their hands, she said.
"It's just like you're looking at another student when these elders need glasses," she said. "They're squinting at the board. They're volunteering in the classroom, but when they can't see, that's when you know they need some help."
Many of the tribe's elders have no money to pay for services, and few have had exams or new glasses in the last decade, Washburn said.
Bishop opened his doors to any Navajo with a census number as soon as the latest appropriation was in his pocket, he said. They are being fitted as quickly as possible with frames and lenses.
The majority of clients seeking services historically have gone to the Gallup location because a doctor in Gallup partners with Bishop to offer low-cost exams, Anthony said.
Anthony wants to see more local citizens go to the Farmington store, but the Nation and Bishop still are trying to partner with a local doctor for exams.
"The southern portion, that region is being served in Gallup," Anthony said. "We need to catch the people in this section, especially the students."
Students often are overlooked when it comes to optical care, Anthony said. A large percentage of low-income families and a lack of insurance among Navajo citizens means eye care often is not a priority.
"That's an important concept to realize," he said. "In order to read and write, kids need to see the board. They need glasses."
Anthony especially wants to invite students in the Central Consolidated School District to participate in the program. About 90 percent of the district's student population is Navajo.
Maridawn Mears, a nurse at Kirtland Central High School, estimated as many as 30 percent of CCSD students need eyeglasses.
"We want the student to be successful," she said. "If they can't see, it's going to be hard for them to do good academically. When they fail in academics, they start feeling bad about themselves. We feel that's a major priority to get those basic needs taken care of so they do have that chance to succeed."
Until the Nation can partner with a Farmington doctor, clients have the option of paying out-of-pocket for an exam, Bishop said. They also are welcome to travel to Gallup for free services.
Bishop also accepts clients with insurance, said Rita Watson, a dispensing optician in the Farmington office. Or, if clients already have a copy of their prescriptions, Bishop can fit them with eyeglasses without the exam.