Many people don’t have the foresight to choose the right career path the first time. Yet Choctaw Nation member Tom Thompson hit the bull’s eye, and he literally helps people to see more clearly.
“I really love it,” Thompson said about owning a business within a Native community. “I get to interact with my Native people every day. I think I help them to see better. If you can’t see, you can’t function, especially in school. If they can’t see the chalkboard out there, how are they going to make good grades?”
Thompson’s path of service to Native communities began as a child, when he was adopted at six months old. While his adopted father was white, his adopted mother was also Choctaw. Growing up, Thompson was raised in both Anadarko and Altus, Oklahoma, as well as in Arizona. After high school, Thompson attended school in between both of his home states—the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
It was at SIPI where he found his career of making and fitting glasses. After graduating in 1979, Thompson returned to Oklahoma to work in the Indian Health Service locations in Pawnee, Ada and eventually his first hometown of Anadarko.
However, Thompson eventually made the decision to strike out on his own. He and his wife Carol, who is Kiowa, opened Anadarko Optical on June 26, 1992.
“I always wanted to own my own business,” Thompson said. “Finally, when I was 35, I told my wife ‘I’m going to open a business here in Anadarko.’”
One of the key decisions, Thompson said, about starting Anadarko Optical was that his parents returned to the area. Also, a critical component of Thompson’s business is that Anadarko lies within seven overlapping tribal jurisdictions—the Caddo Nation; Wichita and Affiliated Tribes; Delaware Nation; Fort Sill Apache; Kiowa Tribe; Comanche Nation; and the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma. Added to the tribal jurisdictions is the nearby Riverside Indian School, a federal Native boarding school, which is one of Thompson’s oldest clients.
“It was tough at first,” Thompson said about when he started Anadarko Optical. “Thank God I had my mom and dad to help. [Anadarko] Bank and Trust would lend small loans. I had a contract with Riverside at the time, plus the [Anadarko Indian] Clinic. We would do their glasses. We still do today. We work with all the tribes, even out of state. Whoever wants to work with us, we’ll make the glasses.”
Between the seven tribes, Riverside and IHS, Thompson also works with individual customers who need glasses and contacts. Thompson estimates his clientele being 90 percent Native. According to the last U.S. Census survey, Anadarko’s estimated population is 6717, with the Native population being nearly 49 percent.
The main concerns that Thompson sees with Native eye care include childhood astigmatism as well as the need to manage diabetes.
“They need to get their eyes checked at least one a year,” Thompson recommended. “If they have diabetes and it’s out of control, they could go blind from it.”
Working with both the government and individual tribes, much of Thompson’s glasses and contacts work is paid by federal voucher as well as specific tribal programs. Thompson also works with private insurance companies such as VSP, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Soonercare (Oklahoma Medicaid) and tribal insurance such as the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes’ Native Health Care. Other federal programs, such as area schools’ Johnson O’Malley programs, will also pay toward eyewear. In situations where there is not a voucher, Thompson will require 50 percent down payments.
While Thompson is open Monday through Friday, he does run into an occasional situation where someone has an emergency on the weekend.
“If we know them, we’ll come over here [to the office] and help them,” Thompson said. “A lot of time, it seems like it is contacts they need on a Saturday or Sunday. We don’t get a lot of it.”
Thompson admitted that owning a business can be difficult. However, he encourages Native people who choose to go into business for themselves to work with the tribes in their area.
“I would work with the tribes as much as you can, the BIA, Riverside or whatever Indian school, and stick with it,” Thompson said. “Sometimes you can get discouraged—money’s tight sometimes. You may want to say ‘let’s throw our towel in. Forget it and move on,’ which I’ve thought about doing several times. I’m glad I didn’t, glad I stuck it out.”