History

of the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute Foundation

Helen Keller

The Foundation's History

In 1925, Helen Keller, the famed advocate for the blind and the deaf who lost her sight and hearing to illness at age 19 months, concluded her speech to the Lions Clubs International Convention with a challenge: "I appeal to you, Lions—you who have your sight, your hearing, you who are strong and brave and kind—will you not constitute yourselves Knights of the Blind in my crusade against darkness?" The Lions responded by making eyesight their primary service focus. The Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute Foundation (RMLEIF, pronounced "rem-leaf") is a consequence of the Lions continuing pursuit of this challenge.

Sixty-two years after Helen Keller spoke at the Lions Clubs International Convention, Austin Jennings, then First Vice President of Lions Clubs International, spoke at the 70th anniversary of the Denver Lions Club. He described the activities of other Lions who were developing eye institutes and vision centers throughout the United States and the world. His remarks sparked a keen interest in a regional eye institute among members of the Club.

Bronze statue at the U.S. Capitol of 7-year-old Helen Keller, standing by a water pump at the moment she realized that her teacher Anne Sullivan was spelling "W-A-T-E-R" into her hand with a manual alphabet. (View the Water Scene from the 1962 Oscar-winning movie "The Miracle Worker".) 

A medical institute must have three essential components: research, education, and patient care. This requires that an institute be associated with a medical school or a teaching hospital.

Dr. Bernard Nelson, Chancellor of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, was approached with the idea of establishing a major eye institute at the Health Sciences Center. The University of Colorado had explored such a possibility with other potential partners, but without success. Thus the University was enthusiastic about the possibility of partnering with Lions given their history of leadership in eyesight projects. The University of Colorado Foundation was approached and agreed to invest seed money to explore the feasibility of the University of Colorado and the Lions establishing such an institute, as partners.

The Denver Lions Club quickly recognized that one Lions club could not go it alone. They found Lions of vision and stature in both Colorado and Wyoming who became enthusiastic supporters of the eye institute project. Lions throughout Colorado and Wyoming understood the impact that an eye institute would have on the vision health of people in this region.

In 1991, a group of Colorado Lions formed the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute Foundation, Inc. The Foundation committed to raise $6 million to help construct the Eye Institute building, and the University of Colorado committed to finish, furnish, equip and administer the Institute at a cost of $6 million more.

A fundraising pin with Wyoming and Colorado flags and the emblems of the Eye Institute Foundation and Lions Clubs International

The newly formed Foundation launched a campaign to fund the Lions share of the project. Lions throughout Colorado and Wyoming raised the money in a variety of ways – member and club donations, pin sales, pancake breakfasts, chocolate bar sales, corporate and foundation gifts – but the majority of funding came from several substantial gifts, with the first coming from the King Foundation, which was established by longtime Colorado Lion Kenneth Kendal King . Over time, donations from the King Foundation totaled more than $3 million, making it the largest single donor. 

One of numerous plaques inside the Eye Institute that recognize the Foundations, Lions Organizations, Lions Clubs, individual Lions, and other donors who supported the project. 

The second largest total contribution has come from a series of grants made by the Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF). In each case, the Eye Institute Foundation has raised matching amounts, but the contributions from LCIF have been vital to the project’s success. 

In addition to these gifts, the Eye Institute Foundation received a number of major gifts of $100,000 or more from individual Lions, Lions Clubs, and other foundations. It has also received thousands of smaller gifts given from the heart by Lions, Lions Clubs, and others.

Construction of the Eye Institute, March 2001

It took 12 years for the Lions to complete the $6 million fundraising campaign, during which time the U.S. Army Fitzsimons Hospital property in Aurora, Colorado became available. The Lions had originally hoped to build an eye center near Colorado Avenue in Denver, but the Fitzsimons campus presented the University of Colorado with a unique opportunity to place a major medical facility at the site of a nationally renowned army hospital. The Eye Institute Foundation was instrumental in facilitating the decision to move the entire Health Sciences Center to the Fitzsimons site by accelerating the initial donation of $2 million of the Lion's $6 million pledge. 

Front of the 3-story Eye Institute in 2011, before expansion

Rear of the Institute in 2011, before expansion

When the three-story Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute building opened its doors in May 2001, it was one of the first buildings on the new University of Colorado Health Sciences Center campus. (Architect's photos of the Eye Institute building before it later expanded.)

The building's Fitzsimons location aided cooperative arrangements with other medical centers, such as Children's Hospital Colorado, which moved next door in 2007, and the Rocky Mountain Regional Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which relocated nearby in 2018. A number of the physicians who practice and teach at the Eye Institute, also practice at Denver Health Medical Center, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and Children's Hospital Colorado. 

Front of the 5-story Eye Institute after expansion

Sign at the rear of the Eye Institute after expansion

As part of a larger medical campus expansion, between 2013 and 2015 the University of Colorado undertook a construction project that added two floors to the Eye Institute, nearly doubling the building's footprint and almost tripling the Institute's floor space from 48 to 135 thousand square feet. The University labeled the completed structure the UCHealth Eye Center, Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute.  (Architect's photos of the expanded Eye Institute building)

The Eye Institute Foundation, with matching funds from the Lions Clubs International Foundation, contributed $1.3 million in support of the expansion, a donation that equipped ten of the building's thirty new clinical treatment units and paid for other treatment and diagnostic equipment

In 2018, the University announced that it was renaming the UCHealth Eye Center Program, headquartered in the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute building, for longtime CU Anschutz Medical Campus philanthropic partner Sue Anschutz-Rodgers. Subsequently, the University relabeled the building the uchealth, Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center, Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute. 

Satellite photos comparing the 2012 pre-expansion Institute and the 2021 post-expansion Institute. The yellow rectangle outlines the footprint of the original structure. 

In addition to adding floor space that was immediately put to use, the 2015 expansion added substantial empty space for future growth. In 2021 the Eye Institute Foundation helped support a build-out into part of this unoccupied space by contributing $300,000 to equip five new examination rooms, a contribution that included matching funds from the Lions Clubs International Foundation.  Substantial unoccupied space for future expansion remains.

Plaque inside the Eye Institute

Time capsule in the Eye Institute lobby

Since completing the commitment to pay half the initial cost of the Eye Institute, continuing contributions from the Foundation have further enhanced care, teaching, and research at the Institute. In addition to the 2015 and 2021 equipment grants described previously, the Foundation has provided $230,000 for other equipment purchases and $160,000 for a pediatric ophthalmology fellowship program. For eight years, the Foundation also supported a volunteer program through which Lions club members assisted at the Institute

Today, the Foundation's Patient Assistance Program helps pay for transportation, lodging, and meals for needy patients and a family member while the patient undergoes examination and treatment at the Institute because necessary vision care is unavailable where the patient lives. The Foundation also pays for refraction and magnification evaluations at the Institute for individuals with low vision who are unable to pay for these evaluations themselves. 

Today, the Eye Center hosts more than 150,000 patient visits annually, making it one of the largest eye centers in the world and making the miracle of saving and preserving eyesight a regular occurrence in the Rocky Mountain region.