TARPON SPRINGS — Month after month, for nearly five years, Brenda Pugh had to choose: food or vision.
Month after month, food won.
So, even though Pugh could barely see through her $8 glasses, the 61-year-old dental surgery assistant kept showing up to work twice a week to supplement her meager Social Security earnings.
That's why the Tarpon Springs woman cried this week when she was prescribed a pair of donated prescription glasses following an eye exam at the Shepherd Center of Tarpon Springs' free eye clinic. She grabbed Dr. Ed Huggett, the optometrist who donates his time and equipment to the once-monthly service, into a big bear hug.
"I'm so grateful," said Pugh, who hadn't been able to afford new glasses since she lost a lens out of her last pair. "They had one pair of bifocals today that fit my prescription. Talk about a blessing."
Blessings are what Huggett and the Shepherd Center say they're all about.
The center got its start in 1974 when four people who saw need in the community made a dozen holiday baskets for seniors.
That outreach has expanded to include five off-site daily soup kitchens, a thrift store, a weekly blood pressure clinic and 600 family holiday baskets each at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It also has a client outreach office that helps low-income families, the homeless and the elderly with things like utilities, rent, bus passes and furniture to start new households.
About 600 people a month use the Shepherd Center's food pantry, said executive director Wanda Weber.
Huggett is a onetime schoolteacher who practices optometry out of Tarpon Springs' St. Luke's Cataract and Laser Institute. He says his work at the Shepherd Center is an extension of the evangelical charitable work he has done for years throughout Pinellas County and abroad.
Hoping to do some charitable work closer to home, the Tarpon Springs native approached the Shepherd Center in July about donating exam equipment. Since then, Huggett has stopped by the organization's bustling outreach center one Monday a month to provide free eye exams. He's partnered with several pharmaceutical manufacturers to provide free medications for eye diseases like glaucoma. The Lions Club of Tarpon Springs collects and donates free eyeglasses.
Nine months later, Huggett is still surprised at the appreciation expressed by some of the nearly 180 people the clinic has served so far.
"I come across so many people that aren't able to read job applications because they can't see it or see in the distance to drive or do other tasks required of the job," said Huggett, who also provides monthly services at the Clearwater Free Clinic and to the homeless at East Fletcher and Livingston avenues in Tampa.
"Some people who come through, their glasses are literally being held together by tape or by wires."
And then there are those hard-to-fit cases like 45-year-old Amy Kubiak, who needs progressive lenses to see things up close. She will benefit from anonymous donors who pay for special-order prescriptions.
However, volunteer optician Lisa Griffin said children are hardest to treat because so few people donate kids' glasses.
While fitting Kubiak's daughter, 6-year-old Jessica, this week, Griffin unsuccessfully rifled through her bag for a pair of lenses encased in blue frames — Jessica's favorite color. But the girl seemed pleased with a pair of brown wire frames.
Her grateful mother thanked the Shepherd Center for providing glasses the family otherwise couldn't afford. Kubiak said Jessica's last pair of glasses cost $150.
"Eyes are our most important organs and how people … get through life," said Griffin, who works by day at Pinellas Park's Transitions Optical, whose employees also donated glasses to the Shepherd Center.
"It's important to have a pair that makes you feel good, too, especially for kids, because we want them to wear their glasses."
As for Pugh, she didn't care what her new glasses looked like as long as she could see.
After all, she said, her eyesight is critical to being able to do her job correctly. Her spectacles would slip down her nose, and the mouth she was removing dental sutures from would blur. She works in a sterile environment, and said her boss was becoming frustrated at her repeatedly fiddling with her glasses.
Pugh is so grateful, in fact, that she's been inspired to give back. She's helping the Shepherd Center search for dentists and other resources to help make the organization's mobile dental clinic a reality.
"I never in a million years thought I would be in this position," Pugh said. "It's very difficult to ask for help when you've been independent all your life. There's an embarrassment to have to ask for help. But there's a lot of people out there to help."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.