ARTICLE BY ALICE DETERS
Alabama leads the nation in diagnosing and addressing vision problems in children ages 6 months to 5 years, thanks to FocusFirst, an initiative of the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility. College students provide free, high-tech vision screenings to children across the state, and many receive academic credit for their work with FocusFirst through service-learning courses across disciplines.
“There are two sides to FocusFirst,” says Stephen Black, director of the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility and founder of FocusFirst. “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, pre-kindergarten programs 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 follow-up care to the approximately 11 percent of children in whom a potential vision problem is detected.
“I have worked with children in a variety of settings, including the YMCA, but FocusFirst sounded like such a unique way to impact the children’s lives,” says Anitra Logan, a sophomore majoring in interior design. Logan has screened children in elementary schools and daycare centers in Tuscaloosa. “I also loved knowing that by participating in the screenings I was getting to help out their parents and teachers as well. Vision problems can impact so many aspects of life, so it was rewarding to know that I was helping out in so many ways.”
Each year, poor vision adversely affects tens of thousands of children across Alabama, due largely to a lack of 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 medical care. Left untreated, poor vision can have negative consequences on educational performance, self-esteem and behavior.
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 nationwide receive comprehensive vision screenings.
Bre Wilson, a junior majoring in nursing, says she was surprised by the improvement she saw in herself as a result of her FocusFirst involvement. “I want to work with children someday, so of course simply interacting with them each week has been helpful,” she says, noting that she grew in other ways as well. “I gained so much from working in a professional setting. Even if difficult situations arose, it was necessary that I maintain professionalism. In nursing it’s so important to stay calm under pressure, and this helped me to get some experience with that. Knowing how much we help the kids made it a great experience as well.”
Since the launch of the FocusFirst initiative in November 2004, more than 2,700 student volunteers from 20 campuses throughout Alabama have screened more than 250,000 children in all 67 counties across the state. Coordinating the statewide initiative, UA continues to be the leading campus in screening efforts. Since 2004, approximately 930 UA students have participated with FocusFirst, screening more than 20,600 children in 14 counties. More than 70 UA students participated in screenings across nine counties during the 2014-15 academic year, reaching more than 2,100 children.
FocusFirst is a signature initiative of the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility and Impact Alabama, a nonprofit housed at The University of Alabama that collaborates with colleges, universities and communities throughout the state to develop and implement service-learning projects that engage students in addressing human and community needs while enhancing their sense of social and civic responsibility.
To learn more about FocusFirst, visit cesr.ua.edu.