By  on October 1, 2009

Olivier Baussan, creator of L’Occitane, found himself a long way from his native Provence Tuesday morning. He was standing in the Thomas C. Giordano School in the Bronx, watching children having their eyes examined, thanks to a $30,000 grant from the L’Occitane foundation.

Volunteers from Helen Keller International’s domestic program, Childsight, were working side by side with L’Occitane volunteers to give eye glasses to underprivileged middle school students who otherwise may not have been able to receive them.

After their eyes were checked, children who needed glasses selected from an array of stylish frames. “Seventy-five percent of blindness comes from preventable eye disease,” said Nancy Prail, director of Childsight, a group dedicated to providing in-school vision screenings and glasses to needy youths. “It can be very simple problems that escalate when left untreated.” Prail said middle school children are targeted within the program because it is the age when many vision problems, most easily correctable, start to show.

L’Occitane’s donation will sponsor about 2,000 on-site screenings in five schools in New York and Los Angeles, as well as the distribution of up to 300 prescription eyeglasses. Baussan said he was drawn to the initiative because he believes his stores and employees must be aware of the world and help to lessen injustice. “Six years ago, we began to put braille on our packaging,” said Baussan through a translator. “The spirit of the company is about the transfer of knowledge and people sharing with the community.” Baussan is also actively involved in outreach programs in west Africa’s Burkina Faso, where a soap-making and literacy center have been in operation, financed by L’Occitane since 2006. “The country is 75 percent illiterate,” said Anne Cécile Brilland, director of marketing. “There is now access for 600 women and four more [centers] are planned for next year.” To that end, on Oct. 14, L’Occitane will launch its Moments of Africa Soap Set, of which 100 percent of the proceeds will go towards the United to Save Sight campaign, which distributes to various charities fighting blindness. The soaps are produced by women in the center using locally harvested shea butter, to promote female financial independence and sustainability. The center also provides education about blindness and the necessary information to combat it.

Baussan said, “From the very start we want to ensure that the activity can live on by itself. We are passing on the skills so the action will last.”

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