Kids given free eye examinations

Published 11:59 pm Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thanks to a special camera, the eyesight of many local children could now come into clearer focus.

More than 180 children in Covington County were given the chance to take a free eye examination at the Andalusia, Florala and Opp Head Start facilities Thursday. FocusFirst, a project of the nonprofit organization Impact Alabama: A Student Service Initiative, sponsored and performed the examinations.

At the Andalusia Head Start, Lindsay Kennemer performed the tests with a camera originally developed by NASA. The camera is focused on a child’s eye, and when the photo is taken, the resulting image is detailed enough to show any problems with the child’s vision.

“This project is about catching vision problems at as young an age as possible,” Kennemer said. “We can find any kind of eye problems, whether it’s far-sightedness or near-sightedness, or something more complex like cataracts.”

She said it usually takes about four weeks before results are mailed back to the Head Start facility. If any disorders are found, the child’s family can be referred to the Sight Savers of Alabama organization, which helps provide low-cost or no-cost glasses and other vision treatments.

“It’s completely non-invasive,” Kennemer said. “It’s no different from having your picture taken by any camera.”

Tabitha Samuel, family services director at the Andalusia Head Start, said the program provides a wonderful service for children and their families.

“Here at Head Start, we try to focus on the health of our kids,” she said. “We have parents who take their kids to doctors, but this is just one additional test that we can offer for free as well.”

Samuel said that last year, three children at Andalusia Head Start learned they needed glasses, thanks to the FocusFirst testing.

“If you can’t see, then you can’t learn,” she said. “In fact, a lot of times you’ll have teachers who say there’s a kid in class who’s restless or disruptive. Then, later on, they’ll discover that the kid just couldn’t see. Once they can see clearly, kids do much better in class.”

Kennemer said approximately 20 FocusFirst employees travel across the state to offer the tests at various Head Start facilities and day cares.

“I’ve enjoyed my time working with it,” said Kennemer, who is from Birmingham. “We had to get up at 4 a.m. this morning to get down here, but it’s wonderful to have the chance to help children. Last year, we screened a child, and discovered he actually had cancer in one of his eyes.

“They eventually had to remove the cancerous eye, but we were at least able to discover the cancer before it had the chance to spread further through his body. We may have saved that little boy’s life.”

According to Impact Alabama’s Web site, since FocusFirst began service in 2004, more than 1,700 college students at more than 20 colleges and universities throughout Alabama have participated in the program. These students have screened more than 59,000 children in all 67 counties across the state, with approximately 11.7 percent of the children failing the screenings and receiving subsidized follow-up care as necessary through Sight Savers of Alabama.