How I got here

Giving back

Independent optometrist, Niamh Harmsworth, on volunteering for Vision Care for Homeless People

Niamh Harmsworth

My father was quite forward-thinking and got very little advice on his career choices when growing up.

Consequently, he felt that it was his job to try and find myself and my siblings a career. He purchased the Good Careers Guide by The Sunday Times and when I was about 16 we went through the entire book picking out anything of interest. From this list we removed anything that wasn’t suitable in terms of my strengths and we whittled it down to optics – it seemed to tick all of the boxes.

I completed my pre-reg at the London Refraction Hospital, which at the time was in the process of transitioning to become the Institute of Optometry.

I ended up there because as a student I was testing the eyes of optometrist and director, Geoff Roberson, who encouraged me to apply. I took his advice and secured one of three pre-reg positions at the institute that year. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was taught by all the greats in their field – Ron Mallett, Judith Morris, Lyndon Jones and Geoff Roberson…it was a dream.

Qualifying coincided with the release of the well-known Tom Cruise film Cocktail and after watching this I decided that Jamaica was the place for me.

I moved back to Belfast and worked at a local opticians in order to save the funds to move. Not long after, I saw an advert in the back of an optical journal seeking healthcare volunteers, including optometrists, to work at the Foundation for International Self Help (FISH) clinic in Kingston, Jamaica. I decided that was my way to Jamaica and off I went.

I returned to the UK a year later and worked as a resident optometrist at a branch of Batemans Opticians.

It was a small practice and I was the optometrist, the dispenser and the contact lens fitter in one. I learnt a lot and gained a wealth of experience before being approached to work for an independent and took the opportunity.

"Like any volunteer work, you get out more than you put in. I find it incredibly rewarding and humbling, and people are really, really appreciative"

Five years later, as I was about to go on maternity leave, the owner said he was thinking about selling and offered me first refusal.

While the timing was not perfect, I decided that it was too good of an opportunity to turn down. Fast-forward 14 years and I have changed the name, moved to larger premises and created what I feel is the perfect practice in iSpy Opticians in Guilford.

It was a New Year’s resolution five years ago that led me to volunteering for Vision Care for Homeless People (VCHP).

Throughout my career, I’ve always been very conscious that I have been dealt a lucky hand and have therefore always tried to give back. This particular New Year’s Eve, I was sitting with my family and I said that I would like to do some permanent voluntary work. In January I was doing some research and stumbled upon an advert seeking optical volunteers for VCHP. Prior to that it hadn’t crossed my mind that I could use my professional skills volunteering in the UK. I called the number on the advert, and with Thursdays being my day off, I signed up to volunteer at the charity’s Brighton clinic once a month. 

Like any volunteer work, you get out more than you put in.

I find it incredibly rewarding and humbling, and people are really, really appreciative. 

People who are homeless, I have generally found, have a low self-esteem – you forget that the ‘average’ person can be nervous attending the opticians, so imagine what it’s like for someone who has no money or can’t dress particularly well. VCHP’s Brighton clinic is based in a day centre, which means that people can just peek in, see we are human and that makes it easy for people to approach us. They know the service is free, so it doesn’t matter if they are entitled to any health care or not. 

I get so much out of volunteering for VCHP and I would encourage everyone to consider it.

When volunteering, people are sometimes worried about the commitment they may have to make, but at the Brighton clinic, for example, we only test twice a month for four hours at a time and you can come in and do as little or as much as you want. If you want to see patients who are fun, eccentric and talented, with more unusual prescriptions and pathologies, this is your opportunity.

The highlights of my month are always from Brighton.

Every time I go down, there is always something that I can do to make a difference to a vulnerable person’s quality of life. It’s my favourite day of the month.

For more information about volunteering with Vision Care for Homeless People, email [email protected]