Students Receive Exams, Glasses from UAMS Volunteers on MLK Day

By Spencer Watson

The Third Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Pediatric Vision Outreach event was organized by nonprofit Rural Ophthalmology Optometry Treatment & Screening (ROOTS) and Shepherd’s Hope Neighborhood Health Clinic and hosted by UAMS.

Patients were provided with activities to complete while they awaited comprehensive eye exams.

Patients were provided with activities to complete while they awaited comprehensive eye exams.

The event sought to provide a comprehensive vision exam and free pair of eye glasses for students who had failed their annual vision screening at school.

“Two out of three students who fail their vision screening don’t get follow up,” said Katie Brown, O.D., an optometrist at the UAMS Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute and assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology in the UAMS College of Medicine. “We think they struggle in school because of that. So we were trying to remedy that problem, at least here in Little Rock, by providing free eye exams on MLK Day.”

For three years now, Brown and UAMS medical and public health student John Musser, who founded ROOTS, have worked to organize the pediatric outreach event. This year it involved volunteer eye doctors and technicians from Jones Eye performing exams and nearly 60 UAMS students from across all five colleges and the graduate school helping to organize appointments and doing activities to keep the young patients entertained.

“We are working hard to ensure that every child in our state who fails their school vision screening has an opportunity to receive eye care,” said Musser, who was inspired to help by international mission work in Costa Rica, Mexico, Rwanda and Uganda before medical school. “Each experience showed me how to work in teams for the greater good.”

The event itself is very much a team effort, involving coordination with the state Department of Education to reach school nurses throughout Little Rock. While last year’s event was a walk-in clinic, and walk-ins were welcomed again this year, the department worked beforehand with nurses to contact students they knew had failed their screenings and then to schedule appointments for them. That effort helped doubled the number of children who received exams this year compared to last year.

“The appointment outreach team helped us recruit those kids who really needed us without violating educational or patient privacy laws, and we really can’t thank them enough,” said Musser. “That included Dr. Sheketa McKisick, Marthelle Hadley, Sherry Scott, Carmen Hernandez, Jana Hunter, Kaye Rainey, Yerize Isturiz and Angelia Johnson.”

Scheduling appointments also helped in organizing volunteers.

“We knew what time patients were coming in and could plan our volunteers accordingly,” said Brown. “Also, for the patients and their parents, they knew they were going to be seen, that someone would be here when they arrived and that they wouldn’t have to wait several hours.”

Another partner in the event was the Essilor Foundation, a national nonprofit that provided the frames and glasses at no charge to ROOTS. After their exam, students got to pick out frames from a selection offered by Essilor. Brown will order them all together and expects them to arrive within a couple weeks.

“Once the frames come in, I’ll create shipping packages for every school that had a child here,” said Musser. “I set up a QR code that parents can scan. It links to a spreadsheet that will document when the glasses were ordered, when we received them, when we shipped them out and includes tracking numbers for all the schools so parents can track their child’s glasses.”

UAMS’s Sue Griffin, Ph.D., vice chair of Basic Research in the Donald W. Reynolds Department of Geriatrics, donated sponsorship for shipping charges in addition to being a volunteer on the day of the event.

The UAMS Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion also partnered in the event. Amber Booth-McCoy, who directs the Junior STEM Academy summer outreach program, worked with Musser to create a STEM-based, multi-station learning activity for the day’s patients, engaging them and challenging them to be visionaries, as King was.

“We are providing free glasses and comprehensive eye exams, but we need to encourage these children to establish a vision for their life and for their community. They are the visionaries,” said Musser. “I believe it is critical to inspire others and especially the next generation.”

Harriett Smith smiles as her granddaughter tries on frames she's chosen for her new glasses.

Harriett Smith smiles as her granddaughter tries on frames she’s chosen for her new glasses.

Brown and Musser said they were grateful to all who pitched in, not only on the day of the event, but those who helped make it possible, too.

“We had really tremendous support from everybody, including our leadership,” said Brown, who noted that among the 10 volunteer doctors from UAMS were Christopher T. Westfall, executive vice chancellor of UAMS and dean of the College of Medicine, and Sami Uwaydat, M.D., then-interim chair of the Department of Ophthalmology.

“Our administrative people were awesome, too, making sure the heat was still on, parking was open, the doors were unlocked, getting helium for balloons, pizza to feed volunteers, tables to work on and so on. We just had great support.

“Seeing over a hundred kids in one day is a lot on any day, and we were doing it on a holiday when everything was shut down,” said Brown. “So it was an all-in effort. It was a big event.”

Yet, with the growth of the vision outreach event from 12 to more than 120 patients in three years, Musser noted the acute need for more services. His goal with ROOTS is to create a mobile vision clinic that will work with an established network of 350 volunteer optometrists to provide comprehensive vision exams for students who fail their school screenings at school-based health clinics across the entire state. He’s working to submit a grant application for that.

“If we can get a mobile vision clinic going, we can strategically reach out and make sure that no child falls through the cracks,” he said. “I don’t think now is the time to be thinking about limits. It’s time to think about how to reach the kids.”