Service-Learning magazine: UA students screen children for vision problems

By:    Date: 11-16-2012

University of Alabama students have provided free high-tech vision screenings to more than 110,000 Alabama children through FocusFirst, a collaboration between the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility and Impact Alabama.

Students receive academic credit for their work with FocusFirst through numerous service-learning courses across disciplines.

“There are two sides to FocusFirst,” said Stephen Black, director of the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility and Impact Alabama founder. “We wanted to figure out a way to make a positive impact on the community and also get college students involved. Many students take for granted the ability to see a doctor regularly.”

As part of a statewide, campus-based effort, undergraduate and graduate students serving as FocusFirst volunteers ensure children ages 6 months to 5 years in Head Starts and low-income daycares are screened for vision problems.  FocusFirst partner Sight Savers America, a nonprofit dedicated to improving eye care among children, provides free or subsidized follow-up care.

Poor vision adversely affects tens of thousands of Alabama children each year, due largely to poor public awareness about the importance of eye care in young children and the inability of children to recognize their own vision impairment. These problems are heightened in families suffering from financial hardship and lack of access to appropriate medical care. Left untreated, poor vision can contribute to impaired educational performance, low self-esteem, and behavioral problems.

In Fall 2010, junior Maggie Gray led a group of UA Honors students on a series of FocusFirst screenings in her hometown of Decatur, Ala. They screened approximately 224 pre-K students at seven schools over three days.

“My senior year of high school, I worked as a tutor at an at-risk elementary school and saw the needs of these children firsthand,” said Gray, a pre-med student majoring in Spanish.  “Being able to return to this school and help these children proved very fulfilling.”

While vision screenings are most effective during the preschool years, when early treatment of many conditions can prevent irreversible vision damage or loss, only 21 percent of preschool children receive comprehensive vision screenings.

Since the launch of the FocusFirst program in November 2004, more than 1,700 student volunteers from 20 campuses throughout Alabama have screened more than 110,000 children in all 67 counties across the state.  A potential vision problem was detected in 11.7 percent of those children.

UA continues to be the leading campus in statewide screening efforts. During the 2010-2011 academic year, more than 140 UA students conducted 60 screenings across 14 counties, reaching more than 2,500 children. In September 2010, UA football quarterback Greg McElroy joined UA FocusFirst staff for the initiative’s 100,000th child screening celebration at the Tuscaloosa Head Start.