Special Reports

Free vision screenings help the needy in the county

BRADENTON — The waiting room was packed as needy men, women and children lined up Thursday at Manatee County Health Department for free vision screenings offered through Prevent Blindness Florida.

As the recession deepens, the lines have nearly doubled, said Leslie Bailey, head of the Prevent Blindness team that started screening participants at 9 a.m.

“We’re Manatee County’s best kept secret,” Bailey said. “We don’t mean to be, but not enough people know about us. We are trying to help the needy who don’t have insurance. We had one man come through who said, ‘I can’t start work until I get glasses.’”

Within an hour, 24 people had passed through the line of high tech machines that check both their peripheral vision as well as how well they can read. By 1 p.m., the team expected to screen more than 50 people.

“This time last year, we were doing about 25 screenings,” Bailey said. “There are so many people out of work.”

Taped to the wall was a small eye chart for young children with rows of shapes rather than letters or numbers.

“We can check children as young as three if they know their shapes,” said April Adkins, the non-profit’s development coordinator. The eye chart of shapes also came in handy for an elderly man who was unable to read or write.

The Prevent Blindness team offers the free screenings through a partnership with the local health department. The arrangement is also an efficient health screening as well. Participants with eye problems who are diabetic are referred to an ophthalmologist, who works with the health department’s diabetic program, for further consultation.

Nearly half of the people screened needed further eye exams and glasses, which will be provided free of charge for those who meet eligibility requirements, Bailey said.

The Prevent Blindness team offers free vision screenings every third Thursday every other month. The next screening will be held on April 16. The team is assisted by students from Manatee Technical Institute studying to become certified optometric assistants. The MTI program, now in its first year, is one of only nine paraoptometric programs in the United States approved by the American Optometric Association, according to Tiffany Bustle, director.

Assisting the screening team is an important part of her students’ education, Bustle said.

“The students and I feel honored to work with Prevent Blindness Florida and to help as many patients obtain the best sight possible,” Bustle said. “The work they do is so important and the more funds they raise, they more people they will be able to help.”

Nearly half of all blindness can be prevented and most often the conditions or illness that rob sight do not cause any symptoms a person would notice, Bailey said. One in 10 children are at risk of vision problems that could cause blindness.

The screening team also tests children for lazy eye, a condition that is easily treated, often with great success, Bailey said.

Those participants who need glasses and are income eligible are given applications to apply for free eye exams and glasses made available through partnerships between local doctors, clinics and the nonprofit. There is a $7 application fee. A family of four earning $42,400 or less could be eligible for a free exam.

Eligibility for assistance is not guaranteed and is limited to the severity of each individual’s vision needs, income and availability of eye appointments in the community, Bailey said.

But as the lines lengthen, so does the need for continued fund-raising.

“When people renew their driver’s license or car license they can contribute a dollar toward Prevent Blindness Florida,” said Bailey. “It’s so important for people to have their eyes checked and now that more people are losing their jobs and benefits, the need is even greater.”

To help more people in Manatee County, the nonprofit is holding a “Light the Night Walk and Family Festival on March 28 at Greenbrook Adventure Park, Lakewood Ranch. A kick-off party to create teams will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Icard, Merrill Law Firm, Gibraltar Companies Building, 8470 Enterprise Circle, Lakewood Ranch. Participants can also register for the walk at www.precventlindness.net/LNSFL.

“Every dollar raised will go toward buying eye exams for needy people,” Bailey said.

For more information, call Prevent Blindness Florida at (800) 817-3595.

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