SANTA CRUZ -- Dr. Curt Simmons is one of two dozen recognized as Community Heroes in Santa Cruz's latest Community Assessment Project report.
The 58-year-old longtime Santa Cruz resident has worked for years to get glasses and vision exams to Santa Cruz's low-income and homeless community.
"I'm surprised at how many really poor eyesight people we see," said Simmons. "It's just hard for them to see much of anything without glasses."
Simmons has provided glasses and vision exams at all three Project Homeless Connect days in Santa Cruz since 2010. It's an annual day-long event in April when homeless people can get much needed services ranging from critical services like dental, optometric and podiatry care to legal services and to simple things like haircuts and bike repairs.
Every year, Simmons's expanded operations. He recruited other optometrists and opticians. He solicited vendors for frames and lenses for glasses. When he realized there were many more patients than they could see in one day, Simmons got vouchers from the large vision insurer, Vision Service Plan. They can be used at any optometrist who takes VSP insurance.
Simmons said he was surprised by how badly some people without glasses needed them. Glaucoma is another big problem for the homeless. Untreated diabetics often develop glaucoma. It's symptomless, but slowly deteriorates the optic nerve, leading to blindness.
Other attendees simply needed bifocals or reading glasses.
"We must have given away nearly 100 pairs reading glasses at the last Homeless Connect Project."
People don't know how cheap reading glasses are at drug stores or don't even have money for them, Simmons said.
Vision and dental care are especially hard for homeless people to get.
"They're not, unfortunately, considered life essential. There are very few dental programs for the homeless and the poor and even fewer programs available for vision," said Peter Connery, vice president of Applied Survey Research, the group that sponsors Project Homeless Connect, as well as the bi-annual Homeless Census and the Community Assessment Project.
Simmons and his optometry practice partner, Dr. David Farberow, also see patients referred through Western Service Workers Association and Santa Cruz's Lion's Club.
Simmons grew up in Riverside and earned his bachelor's degree in biology from UC Riverside. He earned his optometry degree from UC Berkeley's School of Optometry in 1984 and after a brief stint in Fresno, he moved to Santa Cruz with his family in 1987. He worked for a year for Randy Nell before buying the practice from him. He and wife Karen have two daughters, Anna, 27, and Caroline, 22.
He was honored by the commendation, but also caught off-guard. "It was very surprising to get some kind of recognition for this," said Simmons. "It's just one of those things that came out of the blue."
The new award now hangs in one of Simmon's exam rooms.
He said he was impressed by the range and commitment of the other Community Heroes.
"It really made me proud of living here in Santa Cruz," he said.
2012 CAP Community Heroes
Ron Slack, Good Times
Maura Noel, Amgen Tour
Mathilde Rand, Community Volunteer
Michael Paynter, Santa Cruz County Office of Education
Sandy Davie, Santa Cruz Toddler Care Center
Dr. Curt Simmons, Plaza Lane Optometry
Alicia Fernandez, Alicia Zenteno, Angie Gileta, Xochitl Zaragoza, Baby Gateway
Lili Beggs, RN, Sutter Maternity Lactation Department
Francisco Alfaro, Chris Wentzien, Santa Cruz County Football Club Revolution
Joe Hernandez, Santa Cruz Police Department
Josephine Salgado, Women's Crisis Support/Defensa de Mujeres
Jean Graham, Santa Cruz County Homeless Persons Health Project
Doug Keegan, Santa Cruz County Immigration Project, Community Action Board
Elizabeth Walch, Susie Christensen, Peter McLean, Friends of the Library Scotts Valley
Bob Geyer, Watsonville Public Works and Utilities
Ana Rasmussen, Mesa Verde Gardens
Community Hero: Bruce Daniels, UCSC Ph.D. Student, Hydroclimatology
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
The Rev. Andrew Beck and Terry Beck, Foster Parent Mentors