SSA expanding eye care service in Hill Country

Scott Simmons, of Fredericksburg, was among the youngsters receiving Electronic Video Magnifier equipment from Sight Savers America recently.

Homework might have just gotten a little easier for area children with significant visual impairments, due to a gift of electronic and magnification equipment.

On May 22, 10 children with severe visual impairment from the Texas Hill Country received life-changing Optelec Multiview Electronic Video Magnifiers and related equipment from Sight Savers America, a nationally expanding nonprofit organization that provides free visual care for qualified children.

All 10 children have severe visual impairment that cannot be corrected with eyeglasses, contact lenses, medical or surgical treatment.

Chad Nichols, chief operating officer for Sight Savers America, said Friday that the schools these children attend may have EVM equipment for them to use, but they probably wouldn’t have it at home, mainly because of its cost.

“These children have been identified as having ‘severe visual impairment’ with their best corrected vision only 20/200. To read anything on a piece of paper or to write, they’re essentially touching their noses to the paper. So they have no opportunity to see the details of a bug or flower petal or coin,” he said. “This equipment can help them read or write. The girls can point the camera to their faces or hands to put on makeup or paint their nails. Or the child can point the camera out a window to see things magnified they couldn’t see.”

He said each child is first medically and financially qualified to get appointments.

Each set of EVM equipment includes a control panel, a computer screen, and a camera that is clipped on top of the computer screen.

“As long as the parent can plug the computer into power, it’s ‘portable.’ The EVMs are primarily for home use,” Nichols said.

Controls allow the child to view what’s on the screen in “true color” (four-color); or in any of several combinations such as yellow on black, or blue and black, if it makes the reading easier for the child. Nichols said with some visual problems, black print on a white background is very hard to read; and other color combinations make it easier, or sometimes the black print must be a darker black.

EVMs are more expensive than the average family can afford, approximately $2,500-2,600, and are not covered by any type of medical insurance.

Sight Savers America does fundraising to pay for the EVMs, including applying for grants such as the support they receive from The Perry and Ruby Stevens Charitable Foundation and Optelec International.

In Kerrville, the Dietert Center donated space to host Friday’s event.

Children were identified through teachers of the visually impaired, low vision doctors, educational services region 13, school nurses, community organizations, newspaper advertisements, and caring individuals in the Texas Hill Country.

Of the 10 families invited from the Hill Country area to get the training and the EVM equipment, at least one boy, Bryan Mombela from Kerrville, already received an EVM last year, and this time received a compact 7HD “tablet” version of the computer equipment that he can carry to school, and an Eschenbach Menas Lux handheld magnifier with a light inside it.

Nichols said Bryan uses a similar piece of equipment at school.

Other children at the training Friday were Scott Simmons and Xavier Guajardo from Fredericksburg and Madison Felps from Blanco.

Children received low vision evaluations in San Antonio through the Lighthouse for the Blind, The University of the Incarnate Word Rosenberg School of Optometry, Dr. Stephanie Schmiedecke Barbieri, Dr. Nancy Amir, Dr. Sandra Fox and Dr. Laura Miller.

An EVM allows each child to make the most of their remaining vision. EVMs open the world to these children by allowing them to magnify images up to 79 times, allowing them to see their mother’s face for the first time, groom themselves, read, write, complete schoolwork independently, and more, with less eye fatigue and back and neck strain.

They are provided to each child free of charge to their families.

“Some need the EVMs and some need lesser equipment,” Nichols said. “Sight Savers America buys the equipment and brings it to an event like this one to train the kids how to use it. Then we follow up with them at home every six months and until they’re 19 years old.

“One in more than 1,000 children have this severe a visual problem. So after we provide help to all the kids we can find now in the eight states we cover, it’s a maintenance program. After that, we are looking for children born into needing our help or move-ins.”

During the clinic, Sight Savers America’s staff members train each child and their families to use the EVM before they take it home with them that day in its own large padded and wheeled cart.

“This allows an opportunity to complete their education and grow socially,” Nichols said. “Some of the kids have never seen the details of their parents’ faces; and when they do, they say, ‘Mom, you’re pretty!’”

Sight Savers America will also keep records of the child's progress with their vision equipment until the child reaches age 19.

Sight Savers America, San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind, The University of the Incarnate Word Rosenberg School of Optometry, The Perry and Ruby Stevens Charitable Foundation and Optelec International are partners in this effort.

“We have wonderful relationships with the foundation and with Optelec,” he said.

Sight Savers America is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) whose mission is to identify and secure treatment for unmet vision and health needs that impede a child’s ability to reach his or her full potential in school and in life.

The organization began in 1997 in Alabama to help children’s visual problems. Since about 2010, they have expanded their programs into eight states – Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Illinois and California in addition to Alabama and Texas.

For more information, contact Chad Nichols, COO, Sight Savers America, by email at cnichols@sightsaversamerica.org.

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