29 Jul 2020 A Lens on Vulnerable Community Care: Florida Lions Eye Clinic
It’s been said that seeing is believing. But it also takes believing in a shared mission among caring Southwest Floridians to make seeing a reality for thousands of adults and children coping with vision problems because they can’t afford essential eye exams, sight-saving treatments or something as basic as an everyday pair of glasses.
Through the work of a small staff and a dedicated group of volunteers at the Florida Lions Eye Clinic in Bonita Springs, residents who lack insurance or who meet federal poverty guidelines are seeing the world in a whole new way: through a lens of community caring that became even more clear with the outbreak of COVID-19.
The economic shockwave of the pandemic has led to job losses for many individuals and families, which resulted in a dramatic increase in the demand for the clinic’s services.
“From March until June, our waiting list more than doubled because a lot of people who previously had health insurance with their jobs lost that coverage,” says Valarie Bostic, the nonprofit clinic’s executive director. “So, suddenly, there was a larger pool of people who turned to us.”
Residents in need of eye-health services find the clinic through word-of-mouth and by referrals among a regional network of other social-service organizations and healthcare providers. In 2019, the clinic provided services to more than 2,000 patients in need, from children to adults to seniors. Ms. Bostic points to the unique challenges each group faces when it comes to the impact of eye health.
Among children developing emotionally, socially and academically in school, healthy eyesight contributes significantly to the prospects of a thriving future. Too often, undiagnosed eye issues can lead to a downward spiral, from academic struggles, to an accompanying loss of self-esteem and the development of behavioral issues. This is why the Florida Lions Club sponsors eyesight screening in schools.
“We see these children come in and it may seem like they’re acting out in school, and they’re doing poorly, but the underlying issue is that they can’t see clearly and so can’t do their best,” Ms. Bostic says. “There are kids whose parents can’t afford a pair of glasses. It can come down to balancing buying the glasses or eating. That’s why the clinic’s mission is so important.”
Working adults facing the economic fallout of COVID-19 underscores the importance of eye health: employability depends on it. As basic as it seems, among economically struggling residents, the ability to afford a corrective set of eyeglasses can have a tremendous impact on their entire quality of life. And age-related eye issues among disadvantaged seniors, such as glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration, present life-altering challenges as well.
Providing access to services for patients whose needs span such a broad swath, from pediatrics to senior care, is bolstered by eye-care professionals who volunteer at the clinic, as well as private-practice physicians who support the nonprofit organization’s efforts.
“We partner with physicians in the community who help us deliver the care our patients need,” Ms. Bostic says. “We’re very fortunate and grateful to have such amazing relationships with different practices.”
Because the need for social distancing has slowed patient volume due to the clinic’s limited space, Ms. Bostic says the organization has increased its tele-health efforts. This allows staff to consult with patients remotely and to have on-site, volunteer physicians confer on a virtual screening with an eye-health provider who is with a patient elsewhere in the region.
Meanwhile, at the Bonita Springs facility, she says, “We have temperature-checks at the door, the patients have to call before they come in, and we provide masks when they arrive. Before COVID, we were able to have about 20 people in the waiting room, and now that’s down to about four, so it’s a process of safely moving people through.”
Ms. Bostic says the Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s unwavering support of the clinic’s Gift of Sight program has provided a much needed sense of safe harbor amid the current storm of uncertainty.
“The foundation’s assistance has been a godsend, and we truly appreciate how forward-thinking they are,” she says. “That’s allowed us to be more forward-thinking as well, by not having to worry only about how we are going to continue to operate. Instead, we can remain more focused on developing the best program we can for our community.”
Although Southwest Florida collectively looks to the future through a lens temporarily clouded by unpredictability, the Florida Lions Eye Clinic has a clear vision: safeguarding the vision of those in need. For more information, please call (239) 498-3937.
This article is part of a summer series that highlights the vital work of regional recipients of 2020 Community Impact Grants from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.