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VOL. 129 | NO. 113 | Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Eye Care Deserts

SAVE addresses vision needs of city’s children

By Don Wade

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By the time students are on board SAVE’s mobile vision unit the secret is out.

Aurora Collegiate Academy first-grader Dedrick Ingram tries on new frames aboard the SAVE mobile vision examination unit. It’s estimated 25 percent of school-age children have vision problems.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

They’ve failed a school eye screening and parents and teachers are catching on that they may be having trouble reading notes on the board, pages in a book, and grasping all that they should in class.

So before Aurora Collegiate Academy first-grader LeKenda Chavers cheerily announces, “I’m blind, I can’t see anything” (an embellishment, by the way), everyone has a pretty good idea that LeKenda might benefit from glasses.

It’s hardly rare, either. The American Optometric Association estimates that 25 percent of school-age children have vision problems. Yet prior to entering school, only about one-third of all children have had an eye exam or a simpler vision screening.

“You’ve heard of food deserts? There are eye care deserts,” said Sharon Kauerz, executive director of the nonprofit School Advocates for Vision & Education (SAVE). “All the eye care providers are along Poplar Avenue, not in North Memphis or South Memphis.”

Since SAVE was founded in 2007 and began giving exams in 2010, it has been making its way through this desert by identifying and facilitating the treatment of vision-related disorders in school-age children from Pre-K through 12th grade in Memphis-area schools.

On its website, www.memphisvision.org, SAVE keeps counters going for eye exams provided (2,284 as of last week) and glasses provided (1,264).

Here’s the way things typically work: First, a child fails a school-based vision screening. Once it’s learned the child doesn’t have access to vision health care in another way, the child qualifies for a comprehensive eye exam administered by SAVE, most likely on the mobile unit. If glasses are prescribed, the child should have them within a few weeks. If the student needs additional treatment, he or she is referred to a provider.

But before any child can receive an eye exam from SAVE, a parent or legal guardian has to return a signed consent form. There’s plenty of motivation even aside from the child’s eye health as normally an exam might cost $150, Kauerz says, and a child’s glasses anywhere from $125 to $160.

Perhaps 90 percent of children who need prescription glasses are not wearing them, according to the American Optometric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. In Tennessee, almost 60,000 of the state’s 2 million children have problems reading in the classroom.

Dr. Kara Tison examines Aurora Collegiate Academy first-grader LeKenda Chavers aboard the SAVE mobile vision examination unit.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Our biggest roadblock is the consent forms,” Kauerz said.

After that roadblock is cleared and a child is examined and prescribed glasses, it should be the start of a continuing relationship that will require follow-up.

“Children lose their glasses and break them,” Kauerz said.

Kara Tison, a resident at the Southern College of Optometry, and who has been giving exams on the mobile unit, says an infant should have an eye exam at six months and young children should have exams at ages 1, 3 and 5 and then annually once they reach school age.

“Just to make sure they’re developing normally,” she said.

Once they are in school, their vision will have much to do with their capacity to learn as about 80 percent of a child’s learning comes from their visual input.

“It’s very shocking to see how many kids can’t see the board (in the classroom),” Tison said. “If you can’t see the board, how are you supposed to take notes? If you’re skipping words or skipping lines, how are you supposed to learn?”

SAVE has multiple strategic partnerships that enables it to continue its work. Among the sponsors: The Assisi Foundation of Memphis Inc.; Medtronic Foundation; Plough Foundation; Safeco Foundation; Sam’s Town Charity; Sipos Foundation; BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation; and United Way.

And it’s important work. Vision disorders are the fourth most common disability among young children in the United States. And half of underprivileged children who don’t pass a school vision screening will not have a full exam and follow-up care from a qualified provider.

“We would like to get to the point where eye exams are required,” Kauerz said. “Just like immunizations.”

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