By Marcia Pledger, The Plain Dealer
BURTON, Ohio – Maria Dellapina learned firsthand that a child with Down syndrome is not going to wear glasses when they don’t fit properly. But it took years to move forward with creating a new line of eyeglass for people with unique facial features.
This trained optician said she couldn’t find anybody in the eyeglass industry to agree that there was a need. A divorced mother of four children, Dellapina didn’t give up, despite odds of not having money to back an idea. She could only work part-time when her youngest daughter, Erin, kept getting sick.
“Being a mother is a big driving force. It opened my eyes to a whole new world,” says Dellapina, 60, creator of Specs4Us, which stands for Superior Precision Eyewear for Children who are Special. “Unique physical needs, like low nasal bridges, make it hard to look through lenses correctly and sometimes cause headaches.”
By the time her daughter was 2, Dellapina was convinced there was a need. Later she created a web page saying her business was coming. But three years later, she had nothing to sell. Finally she got a friend to invest $10,000 to manufacture the glasses she designed.
“When my daughter was in preschool, she got real sick and I lost my job trying to take care of her. I tried to get a new job, but I was pulled out of a couple of interviews because she was sick and needed to be picked up,” Dellapina recalls. “A friend of mine said, she’s not going to let you work out of the home anymore. I can give you some funding if you can bring these frames in and try to get your business started.”
After she found a manufacturer, next she found parents online who agreed to let their children wear the glasses free of charge in exchange for feedback. Then, with just a few styles and not many glasses, she went to her first convention aimed at people who have Down syndrome.
Five years ago Dellapina got a patent, joining thousands of entrepreneurs who seek protection from competitors for an innovation. Erin is now 16, and Erin’s World eyewear by “Specs 4 Us”” is on target to sell more than 6,000 frames this year. Growth in the last couple of years is coming from international markets with distributors in Spain, Australia, the U.K. and Germany.
Dellapina’s work has not gone unnoticed. In December, Toyota named Maria a Mother of Invention and honored her with a $50,000 Driving Solutions grant at Tina Brown’s Women in the World salon event.
Q: What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is knowing I am helping someone see the world clearer … all around the world! Almost daily I get a thank you from an optician, doctor, or parent via an email, call or even a card in the mail. It is so easy to get up and come to work.
Q: Where or when do you do your best thinking?
I am always thinking of ways to improve the way we run things… from shipping, to packaging, to design or even advertising to reach new markets. I have a note pad next to my bed in case I think of something. At this age I must write it down, or I will forget it in the morning. If I am driving to a conference I will record ideas on my phone, many ideas come when I am in a car alone driving.
Q. What gave you the strength to never give up on your idea despite naysayers and a lack of resources?
My strength came from watching my daughter struggle with her “typical” glasses. I bet I had (my website) up two years before ever getting a demo frame made. Many parents commented on it stating they were waiting for this frame line. One day a parent wrote she was giving up. I wrote back, “No please don’t. This WILL happen. And I realized I needed to make this happen and now. I knew there was a
need for this, despite what some people in the optical industry told me. I have a few optometrist who have a child with Down syndrome who have told me, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’