The nonprofit organization SHADES OF LOVE collects new and used sunglasses and distributes them in remote, high-altitude regions.
In the busyness of everyday life, there are many things we take for granted; one example is our eyesight. We do not truly recognize its value until we no longer have it. The majority of the inhabitants of the Himalayas and the Andes live above 2500–5000 meters and are therefore exposed to intense sunlight all year round. The potential consequences of UV radiation are serious eye diseases, inflammation, and even blindness. This can have a devastating impact on their quality of life, limiting their ability to work and threatening their very existence.
We spoke with one of the SHADES OF LOVE co-founders, Niklas Huppmann about the project:
What made you decide to start the SHADES OF LOVE project?
It was my passion for adventure and my desire to make a positive impact, as well as the simplicity of the project. Every pair of sunglasses has the potential to bring stronger and healthier vision to its new owner. I have been doing this for more than five years now. When we started, we noticed that many of the Himalayan people had some sort of problem with their eyes. We observed a specific connection—exposure at high altitudes causes vision loss. We had some old sunglasses at home and got the idea that we should give them to people in the Himalayan valleys. At the time, I was attending grade 10 and facilitated our South American expansion. Right now, I’m studying and just came back from a trip to the Andes.
“We observed a specific connection — exposure at high elevations causes vision loss.”
SHADES OF LOVE was founded in 2009. How has the project evolved since then?
In the beginning, we collected around 300 sunglasses per year. Today, that number is between 10,000 and 100,000 annually, and I would estimate that to date we have distributed more than 300,000 pairs of glasses to five different countries. Right now, there is also a large shipping container in Hamburg ready to go on its big journey. We’ve established official relationships with governments that support our logistics and put us in touch with doctors and other local partners. Our focus is not only on the distribution of the glasses but also on educating the local population. One part of this educational work is visiting schools and talking to students about the dangers of UV radiation. Additionally, because many of the vision problems we encounter require ophthalmological procedures and surgeries, we also support our partners at the Tibetan Health Care Center to help provide these services.
You will soon embark on your second trip to the Himalayas. What awaits you there?
Adventure—as always—with interesting people, spectacular landscapes, and a motorcycle trip through villages, glaciers, and deserts. This time, the political situation in Kashmir is a bit more concerning, but we received a green light and reassurance from our military contacts there. So far, we have mainly focused our activities in Ladakh in the northernmost part of India, particularly in the Zanskar, Kargil, and Mustang valleys, but we want to reach new valleys and establish relationships with local monks and doctors. Our top priority is to strengthen collaborations with our partner organizations so that we can ship our container full of sunglasses to the Himalayas as soon as possible.
What does a SHADES OF LOVE expedition look like?
We pack our bags with as many sunglasses as possible and fly to Delhi and Leh, which is the capital of Ladakh. There we rent motorcycles and visit all our friends and partners. We choose a valley to go to and then check which routes are safest. Along the way, we follow rivers through valleys of rugged, barren mountain ranges, and at the end of the valley, we usually find the glacier that feeds the river. We drive over mountain passes that rise in elevation to 5,800 meters, and we stop as soon as we see a shepherd, a roadworker, or a farmer. We then explain to them what sunglasses are—in the worst Ladakhi you’ve ever heard!—and describe how these glasses will address the eye problems that almost everyone in the region has suffered from for generations. We stop in several villages and are welcomed with open arms.
Have you already seen progress in people’s health?
Yes, but there is still a long way to go. Long-term damage to the eyes can only be corrected with surgery. That is why we need to tell the villagers, especially the younger generation, how they can protect their eyes. When we drive through the valleys and see people wearing our sunglasses, we know we’re doing a good thing.
SHADES OF LOVE is a relatively small project. How can one get involved?
Jürgen Altmann and I manage almost everything at SHADES OF LOVE. We also have a great and very reliable support team of about ten people who provide administrative assistance, tax consulting, and public relations, and anyone who can provide their time and support as volunteers is always welcome! For example, you can be an ambassador in your county, you can ask your local bakery if you can set up a collection box there, or you can ask your colleagues in the office if they have any old sunglasses. We have seen a lot of creative approaches. We also have dependable volunteers working for us in the Himalayas.
“You can ask your local bakery if you can set up a collection box there.”
What is the best way to support SHADES OF LOVE?
Because our warehouse is filled to capacity, the logistics have become our biggest expense, so we are happy for every Euro donated. We can issue receipts for larger monetary contributions. One-hundred percent of these donations go to logistics and marketing (for example, transportation costs, airfare, and flyers). Without the generosity of our donors, this vital and singular project would not be able to survive.