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Health, Science & Environment

Thousands of Ohio kids aren’t getting proper eye care. One bus is bringing glasses on the go

 A white van is decorated with a picture of three kids with glasses, along with the logos for the Ohio Optometric Foundation, Foundation for Appalachian Ohio and Vision to Learn.
Erin Gottsacker
/
The Ohio Newsroom
In the past two years, the iSee with Vision to Learn van has visited hundreds of schools in southeastern Ohio to provide more than 3,400 kids with free eyeglasses and about 4,000 students with free eye exams.

The state department of health released a report earlier this year that shows 80% of kids in Ohio who fail vision screenings don’t receive follow-up eye care.

That number is the worst the state has reported since at least 2017, and it’s even higher in rural counties.

“Especially for us here in Jackson County, there's a need because we don't have a lot of optometrists and because of no insurance, the families don't have the money,” said Connie Young, an elementary school nurse.

She says the town of Jackson, in southeast Ohio, has just two eye clinics.

 An eye chart reads E,K,Z in giant letters
Erin Gottsacker
/
The Ohio Newsroom
Places like Jackson County have very few local eye doctors, so the mobile clinic offers kids an opportunity to receive follow-up eye care for free.

“It's just like getting into the dentist,” Young said. “There's a waitlist.”

In other parts of the state, the need is even greater. A 2019 inventory of Ohio optometrists shows Vinton and Morgan counties don’t have a single eye doctor between them.

And even when eye doctors are present, many have a cap on the number of Medicaid patients they’ll accept.

“Once that fills up, they have nowhere to go,” said Dana Gillum, an optometric technician who used to work at one of the clinics in Jackson.

When people can’t use their Medicaid insurance locally, they’re either forced to seek care in bigger cities like Columbus or go without.

“That's why they don't get the care,” Gillum said. “Maybe they can't get to Columbus. I mean that’s a far drive, you’re talking three hours there and back. People just can't afford it. And so it's not that they want to neglect their children, it's that they don't have a choice.”

So Gillum brings the clinic to them.

The mobile eye clinic

A portrait of Dr. Erica Shelton inside of a mobile eye clinic. She sits on a black stool and is surrounded by eye exam tools. Next to her, the white cabinet is covered in stickers of minions.
Erin Gottsacker
/
The Ohio Newsroom
Dr. Erica Shelton poses inside the mobile clinic. She works here once a week to provide kids with free eye exams.

Parked outside of Jackson Northview Elementary School, Gillum works with optometrists like Erica Shelton in the back of a big white van.

Decked out with tonometers, phoropters and retinal cameras, this van has all the equipment needed to give a comprehensive eye exam.

In the past two years, it’s visited hundreds of schools in southeastern Ohio to provide more than 3,400 kids with free eyeglasses and about 4,000 students with free eye exams.

Inside, Dr. Shelton quizzes a first grader with lines of gradually shrinking letters and fingers held up in her periphery.

“I'm going to give you some different letters here,” Dr. Shelton says. “Any guesses on those letters? They’re a little bit small.”

She says this sort of exam is critical: Eye problems frequently don’t cause pain so they’re easy to ignore. But there’s a range of other long-term effects that have huge impacts on kids: behavioral problems, learning loss and eventually, the inability to get a driver’s license.

Over the course of three weeks in April and May, a rotating crew of optometrists like Shelton have examined 300 students in Jackson.

It was so successful, the Ohio Optometric Association launched a similar program in southwest Ohio, targeting lower income pockets of Dayton, which also lack optometrists.

The gift of sight

 A tray of blue, pink, red and green glasses
Erin Gottsacker
/
The Ohio Newsroom
Following their free eye exam, students pick out a pair of glasses.

At the end of every vision exam, Dana Gillum, the optometric technician, unboxes trays of colorful glasses.

“Let’s try some on,” she says. “Put those on. I really like those ones.”

She holds up a mirror for kids to test out different colors so they can choose the right ones for them.

With so many kids across the state in need of eyecare, Gillum knows she can’t fix the problem single-handedly. But each individual child she helps makes the effort feel worth it.

“When they put those glasses on for the first time, it is amazing,” she said. “They are so excited that they can actually see it just brings tears to your eyes. You're just so happy to see them be able to see again.”

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Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.