Students address vision-care problems of Alabama’s youngest citizens through courses including UH 331 Poverty in America.
BY KARLY WEIGEL
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, hightech vision screenings to children across the state, with many receiving academic credit for their work with FocusFirst through service-learning courses across disciplines.
“There are two sides to FocusFirst,” said 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 Start 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.
“I enjoy serving with FocusFirst because I know that the earlier eye problems are diagnosed and the quicker they are treated, the less likely it will be that these children will suffer educationally or socially,” said Anna Claire Spradling, a senior majoring in biology who plans to attend optometry school. Spradling has screened children at two elementary schools in Tuscaloosa and at a daycare center in Alabaster, Ala. “FocusFirst is often the first line of eye care for many of these children,” she says. “I am honored to know that I am a small part of making their future brighter.”
Poor vision adversely affects tens of thousands of children across Alabama 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 adversely affect 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.
Katelyn Schwaegerle, a sophomore majoring in management and marketing, screened children throughout West Alabama. One child she screened was diagnosed with nearsightedness, a simple vision impairment that can be corrected with glasses, but if not caught, could lead to more serious problems.
“The kids, their families and the teachers were all grateful for the screenings,” Schwaegerle said. “Some of them don’t have the time, money or resources it takes to go to an eye doctor, so having a program like FocusFirst come directly to the children to administer the screenings was a huge help for them.”
Since the launch of the FocusFirst initiative in November 2004, more than 2,500 student volunteers from 23 campuses throughout Alabama have screened more than 200,000 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 860 UA students have participated with FocusFirst, screening more than 18,500 children in 14
counties. Over 60 UA students participated in screenings across nine counties during the 2013-14 academic year, reaching more than 2,600 children. A potential vision problem was detected in approximately 11 percent of those children screened by UA students.
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.