Lighting the Way

March 29, 2012  

Thomas Gimbel of Optima says the Lighthouse gives hope to people with vision problems.

By Danielle Beurteaux

  Thomas Gimbel: When people lose their vision, their first reaction is often to become reclusive and isolated
Blindness and low vision are easy enough to imagine, says Thomas Gimbel. "One only has to try to cross a room in the dark to realize the difference of no vision," he says. But the daily challenges faced by those with vision loss are a different matter, and that’s where Lighthouse International comes in.

The Lighthouse helps people who were born with vision problems and those who develop them later in life. The mission of the Lighthouse is to ensure that they have the resources and opportunities to live the same life as a sighted person.

"When people lose their vision, their  first reaction is often to become reclusive and isolated," says Gimbel. "The Lighthouse helps prevent that by keeping life expanding and involved. . . . The difference it makes in people’s lives is enormous."

For Gimbel, 57, partner and chief portfolio risk officer at the $3.5 billion New York–headquartered fund of funds Optima Fund Management, philanthropy runs in the family. His mother, Fern Tailer, and godmother, Kim Baker, founded the famous POSH sale in the 1960s, a designer clothing sale that’s become a mainstay Lighthouse fundraiser. (While there’s no history of vision loss in Gimbel’s family, both his sons have muscular dystrophy, and Gimbel is active with organizations looking for a cure.)

The Lighthouse was founded in 1905 and has been central in helping New York’s blind population, including advocacy — its work led to children with impaired vision being allowed in the city’s public schools in 1909. The organization changed its name to Lighthouse International in 1998.

Gimbel first became involved with the Lighthouse in the 1990s while at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette as head of the team advising the nonprofit on its investment portfolio. He was asked to join the board in 2003. He is the founder and co-chair of the advisory board, and also serves on the development and investment committees.

Vision loss is becoming more common, says Gimbel, because people are living longer, resulting in conditions like macular degeneration, and because of increases in diseases, particularly diabetes, a major cause of adult blindness. Some 28.6 million Americans have eye disease. "It’s much more prevalent than people realize," says Gimbel.

The Lighthouse offers training, career development, vision rehabilitation, orientation and mobility training. It also runs a music school and a preschool that integrates sighted and vision-impaired children. "The school is extraordinary," says Gimbel. "They really benefit from their interaction and mutual experience."

Lighthouse board chair Roger Goldman calls Gimbel a stalwart supporter with a strong voice and deep commitment. "He really is a very stable and calm influence," says Goldman. "He makes sure we’re working on the right issues and moving to appropriate solutions."

Through his work with the Lighthouse, Gimbel has seen what people with vision problems can accomplish when they receive educational assistance, coaching and some medical help.

"I’ve learned the infinite possibilities for someone who is losing or has lost his or her eyesight," he says.

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