Lions' vision is to keep eyes in focus
Helen Keller challenged Lions Club International members to be "knights of the blind" nearly 100 years ago, and local club members continue to met that challenge as they raise funds to improve the sight of many area residents each year.
In issuing her challenge, Keller "wanted to enlist the help of all Lions Club members to put their efforts toward helping those with visual impairments," explained Poplar Bluff Lions Club member/retired optometrist, Dr. Jerry Long.
Locally, back in the 1950s, Long said, his father was an optometrist who began an eyeglasses program.
Teachers and school nurses, he said, would "find children who had poor vision ... they referred them to my dad to check their eyes."
Long said his dad "did it for nothing. He saw hundreds and hundreds of children during his time."
In 1972, Long said, he joined his father's practice and continued working with the program until his retirement in 2015.
"I remember we saw scores of kids in a year; we'd see three or four a month," said Long, who indicated they didn't just see children.
"A lot of times an adult falls on hard times," Long explained. "They couldn't get a job unless they could see, and they needed glasses.
" ... We're talking about people who would not have the ability to read anything, to drive, to watch TV, to function in their daily lives. This helps them get their vision back."
Long recalled one woman who just wanted to see her grandchild's face.
"We saw hundreds ... school children and individuals that needed help with their vision and eye care," Long said. "(The Lions Club) has been doing it all these years, and continues to do it today."
Seeing the patients now are Dr. Kylie Divine of Divine Family Eye Care and Dr. Teri Page of Pearle Vision.
Divine has been involved for three years, and sees both children and adult patients who are benefiting from the program.
"It's really debilitating not being able to see," Divine said.
Some of the patients, she said, have gone without glasses for a long time because they couldn't afford them or had no insurance.
The state's Medicaid program will only provide for a pair of new glasses every two years, said Lions Club member Steve Walsh.
"Kids are going to break their glasses; there will be mishaps" or the glasses get lost, said Walsh, who indicated the family has no one to turn to "except us."
The Lions Club, Divine said, gives them access to vision corrections.
When a child gets his/her new glasses, "they always seem to comment on the trees. ... They can see distant limbs and leaves.
"It's fun to watch them put on their glasses the first time. Their face lights up. They just look around at everything in the room ... everything looks so different."
Knowing the child has glasses, "their school is going to be better" and he/she will "be a happy little kid," Divine said.
On average, Page said, she and Divine each see about two to three patients a month.
"We do two to three surgical referrals a year to Mid-South" Lions Sight and Hearing Service in Memphis, Tenn., said Page, who has been a Lions Club member since 2004.
The numbers, according to Lions Club member Brad Barwick, fluctuate, but are usually higher at the beginning of the school year.
The club, he said, gets referrals from school counselors and nurses in Poplar Bluff and the surrounding area.
The process, Walsh said, begins with an application. To be eligible, he said, state benefits have to have been applied for and denied.
"I've been screening for 35 years ... most are pretty easy to accept," said Walsh, who indicated 27 percent of those living in Poplar Bluff are below the poverty line.
Once accepted, Barwick said, the Lions Club pays for whatever is needed, including transportation to Memphis if more extensive care is needed.
If the family has no way to cover expenses, "we take care of it," Barwick said. " ... We make sure they get there and get the help they need."
Barwick said the Lions Club spends between $10,000 and $13,000 annually on its vision program. The amount, he said, depends on the needs, such as glasses or surgery.
The doctors, such as Divine and Page, as well as the Memphis surgeons, all donate their time, said Barwick. The club, he said, covers the doctors' expenses.
Divine said she believes everyone should give back to his or her community, and she uses her abilities to do that.
"It's another reason I moved back to Poplar Bluff,"she said. "This is my hometown, where I was born and raised."
Divine said she wants to give back to those who "helped raise me."
Divine and her fellow Lions raise money each year to support the program, and all the money raised "stays here locally" and is used for supporting "our neighbors."
The funds are raised through such activities as the club's election day chili and ham and bean dinners.
For 25 years, the Lions Club also held an annual cable auction, which was its major fundraiser, but "interest dwindled," explained Walsh. "Last year, we had our first charity auction."
Also held for the first time in 2017 was a fundraiser featuring musical performances.
"Concert No. 2 is coming up" on April 14 at the Rodgers Theatre, Walsh said. "It's our major fundraiser."
"Roarin' at the Rodgers" will feature Matt Stell, Alex Riffle and The Stiff Riffs and the Brothers Walker.
Tickets can be purchased from any Lions Club member.
Both Page and Long also urge the donation of any old eyeglasses to the Lions Club. Collection boxes, Long said, are available at most eye doctors' offices.
"The recycled eyeglasses are used overseas ... (giving) people at least a pair of glasses close to what they might need," Long explained.
For some people, Page said, this is the only opportunity to have a pair of glasses.
"It's a really good program," she said.
Just bring them by, and "we'll take care of them," Divine added.