RE-SPECS yourself

Since 2008, RE-SPECS has collected more than 20,000 eyeglass frames and sold over 8,000 pairs.

RE-SPECS STAFF (left to right): Yael Goldberg, Chana Simon, Rhoanna Sumroy, Yitz Feigenbaum and Hila Sulimanov. (photo credit: Courtesy)
RE-SPECS STAFF (left to right): Yael Goldberg, Chana Simon, Rhoanna Sumroy, Yitz Feigenbaum and Hila Sulimanov.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
An “inclination to shop secondhand” as a teen led Chana Simon to create an optical shop, located in Ra’anana, where people in need can buy highly subsidized eyeglasses made with donated frames.
Simon’s nonprofit is aptly named RE-SPECS, because honoring the dignity of recipients is an important part of her mission. Since 2008, RE-SPECS has collected more than 20,000 eyeglass frames and sold over 8,000 pairs.
Zionism was an important part of her upbringing, as was the predisposition to be of service. “I grew up in a family of being active in the community in a big way. Both my parents were very big community people, raising funds and doing hessed projects,” she recounted. When she was growing up in Melbourne, Israeli visitors were admired. “We looked on them as special because they came from the Holy Land. Israel was definitely something of a vision. Moving there was a goal.” Simon came to Israel for a non-traditional, January- to-December gap year. During the summer months, she weeded cotton fields in Moshav Keshet, participated in an archaeological dig in Shiloh, assisted in a kindergarten in a development town and peeled pears in a kibbutz kitchen.
She returned to Australia for a few years, but the magnetic pull of Israel was strong. “I had dated all the suitable guys in my community. And I really felt the calling of Israel. I wanted to do more religious studies, so I returned to Israel to study at Neve Yerushalayim in Har Nof [in Jerusalem].”
Making aliya was a natural next step for Simon. She married, moved to Jerusalem and then Ra’anana, and gave birth to seven children. She worked outside the home only occasionally while raising her family. True to her family’s tradition, “I was involved in quite a few hessed projects.”
The seed of RE-SPECS was planted in the streets of Ra’anana, literally. “In Ra’anana, people were always getting rid of stuff. They would put stuff on the street.” As a teen, Simon “would go to a really, really posh area and, instead of spending $1,000 on a new dress, I spent $100 on a pre-loved one.” She saved money dressing her children in high-quality, secondhand clothes. So she knew the world of secondhand items. In time, she saw its charity potential. Narrowing her focus to games, toys and items for children, “I realized I could collect these toys and games for people in need,” she determined.
“I definitely have this knack for collecting secondhand stuff. Things started to flow in. I got contacted from one organization in the South that had a surplus of donated roller-skates. I would go to poorer areas and distribute this really fantastic stuff – Fisher Price toys, strollers, cribs and more,” she enthused.
At the time, the family lived in a third-floor apartment with no elevator nor storage room. And she had no car. Though she was very successful, the logistics of running this operation became overwhelming for Simon and her family.
That’s about the time her niece, visiting from Melbourne, casually mentioned that she was due for a new pair of glasses from her Australian health fund. As she wondered what happened to all the old glasses, a lightbulb went off in Simon’s head.
Eyeglass frames are a lot easier to store than toys and games, so Simon pivoted. “I began to collect used frames and soon phased out the toys and games. Here was an opportunity to choose a different hobby that was more manageable. It was literally a little hobby from my home.
“I knew nothing about glasses, except all my family members wore them! I had no sense of good frame conditions. I really didn’t know anything. I went into local optical shops to learn how to determine what was a good frame worth keeping or restoring.” As the frames started coming in, local social-service workers began referring people to her home to choose a frame for NIS 10. “One social worker came as an interpreter for Russian-speaking clients,” she recalled.
Professionally, “work went dry and I felt I was at a bit of a crossroads. I had a bit of time to think. I didn’t feel pressured, but wondered, ‘What am I doing next?’ One of the things on my list was my hobby of collecting frames.
“If you would have asked me more than eight years ago, would I see myself running a nonprofit organization, I would have laughed at you. That wasn’t me! I was bringing up seven children. I stayed home most of those years with them.”
Based on an idea from the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter, she called Joseph Gitler of Leket Israel, which distributes surplus food that would otherwise go to waste.
“Because of the book, I got the courage to pick up the phone. I told him, ‘I’ve got this little [hobby] and wonder if you have any ideas how to make it a bigger [project]. He agreed to meet and suggested I make it into a nonprofit organization. I said, ‘What is that?’” Gitler helped establish RE-SPECS. He gave Simon seed money, a referral to an accountant and a vision of herself as someone who could run a nonprofit and employ people.
“What appealed to him was the similarity [between Leket and RE-SPECS] – there are surplus resources out there that can help people in need.” She quickly transitioned from collecting secondhand frames to receiving “surplus stock that had been sitting in supply houses and stores that hadn’t been sold. Today the majority of what we have is surplus [merchandise].” Simon characterized that first year as “jumping out of my comfort zone into the deep end.” She was assisted by a wide range of individuals and organizations, including high-school students doing community service, volunteer optometrists and organizations like the South African Telfed and British Myisrael. There were many “little baby steps along the way.” After conducting a local crowdfunding campaign, Simon moved RE-SPECS into a storefront. Today, RESPECS offers eye tests, lenses and frames to the underprivileged, including the elderly, disabled, lone soldiers, new immigrants and others on limited incomes. RE-SPECS is centrally located and wheelchair accessible. “We never turn anyone away. We believe in people having self-respect and 95% of our customers pay the nominal charge. We raise funds for people who can’t afford anything. Getting the glasses they need is a life changer.”
Simon sees immigrants as natural risk-takers. “When you make aliya, you jump into the deep zone many times over. You may end up on a career path you didn’t intend or plan. Israel seems to be a land of different opportunity. There’s a lot of buzz here. You get surprised and you do things you might not have done in your home country.”
She emphasized that RE-SPECS perpetually needs connections, “to people who can donate glasses. We need better channels to get frames here. We need volunteers on many levels. And financial donations will always be needed.”
She concluded by illustrating how RE-SPECS also advocates respect. “We can learn a lot from people in need. We have a lot of stories where an impoverished person volunteers and gives us support and encouragement. We tell them, ‘One day we hope you’ll be in better [financial] circumstances and will be able to donate to help others.’”