History

of the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute Foundation

Helen Keller

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 and the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute 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 in the U.S. Capitol of 7-year-old Helen Keller, standing at a water pump at the moment she realized that her teacher was spelling "W-A-T-E-R" into her hand with a manual alphabet.

A medical institute of any kind 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 and Wyoming Lions formed the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute Foundation, Inc. The Foundation committed to raise $6 million to help build 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 in 1991. Lions throughout Colorado and Wyoming raised the money in a variety of ways – pancake breakfasts, member donations, pin sales, candy 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 approximately 12 years for the Lions to complete the $6 million fundraising campaign, during which time the U.S. Army Fitzsimons Hospital property became available. The Lions had originally hoped to build an eye center near Colorado Avenue in Denver, but the Fitzsimons campus presented 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 Eye Institute in 2011, pre-expansion

NE corner of the Eye Institute in 2011, pre-expansion

The Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute building was one of the first on the new University of Colorado Health Sciences Center campus, opening its doors in May 2001. Since then, it has provided the highest quality vision-saving services to the people of the Rocky Mountain region.

The building's Fitzsimons location has aided cooperative arrangements with other medical facilities, such as Children's Hospital Colorado, which moved next door in 2007, and the Rocky Mountain Regional Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which moved to a nearby site in 2018.

Front of the Eye Institute after expansion

North side of the Eye Institute after expansion

As part of a larger medical campus expansion plan, between 2013 and 2015 the University of Colorado undertook a construction project that almost tripled the size of the Eye Institute building. The University rebranded the completed structure the UCHealth Eye Center, Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute.

The Eye Institute Foundation, with matching funds from the Lions Clubs International Foundation, contributed $1.3 million to support 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 rebranded the building the uchealth, Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center, Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute, which is the current name on the building.

The 2015 expansion added substantial empty floor space for later growth. In 2021 the Eye Institute Foundation supported a build-out into part of this unoccupied space by contributing $300,000 to equip five additional examination rooms, a contribution that included matching funds from the Lions Clubs International Foundation.

Today, the Eye Center hosts more than 150,000 patient visits each year, 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.

Plaque inside the Eye Institute

Time Capsule inside the Eye Institute