Three simple little tests performed by Lions Club volunteers could be saving local youngsters from permanent blindness.
Local Lions and Lioness clubs have formed a partnership with the Niagara public health department and since November have been going into Niagara schools to screen Senior Kindergarten students for vision problems. Their task is to make parents aware not only when there is an issue with a child who needs to be attended to by an optometrist, but equally important, to let them know comprehensive vision evaluations are covered by provincial health insurance and are important for young kids.
St. Davids Lion Bradd Anderson was at Crossroads Public School recently to carry out the vision screening tests with the help of a small group of volunteers from his and other Lions clubs in the area. In total they tested about 50 children, and he found two whom the tests identified as having potential problems. Letters provided by the health department were sent home to notify their parents, and a second letter will be sent as a reminder.
“Lions have been wanting to do this for a long time,” said Anderson, “but we were frustrated — we couldn’t find the right door to open.”
A provincial mandate passed by the previous Liberal government to begin vision screening in schools opened that door, he said.
All public health units in Ontario operate under provincial standards, and those standards were changed in January 2018 to include mandatory vision testing for Senior Kindergarten students, “within existing budgets,” said Christene deVlaming-Kot, the regional manager of school health.
With the screening legislated, the health department reached out to the local Lions, aware they wanted to help — vision and eye care is an important cause in international Lionism, and there are other municipalities in Ontario where Lions clubs offer a similar service, working with school boards rather than public health departments, she said. In Niagara, the public health unit provides the administration of the program, while the Lion volunteers go into the schools.
“This has become a model for others to follow — the Niagara Health folks were the first to take this and run with it,” said Anderson.
The two public school boards and the French board are all included in the program, he said.
There was a major investment in an optical camera, which 33 volunteers from Niagara and Haldemand Norfolk clubs have been trained to use, along with learning how to administer the HOTV test (the one where letters get smaller with each line) and another Anderson refers to as the “Rand dot” test which checks for colour vision.
Some kids are a little nervous, some very “nonchalant,” said Anderson, but as a volunteer, “I’m having so much fun doing this with children. The tests are absolutely non-threatening, the kids are very attuned to what we’re doing, and they are as patient with us as we are with them. I can’t say enough about how much I am getting out of this.”
And that’s in addition to obeying basic tenets of Lionism, one of which is a commitment made to Helen Keller to be “knights of the blind,” he said, and the other is living the Lions motto, “We serve.”
The enthusiasm of the Lions, and the experience of Lions clubs working with kids in other areas, were what convinced public health staff it made sense to collaborate, said deVlaming-Kot.
The goal of the program is two-fold — to identify potential problems or risks, but as important if not more so, is that parents are often unaware of the importance of vision evaluations for kids at an early age — actually at a younger age than the five-year-olds in SK — and that it’s covered by OHIP. Some vision problems in children cause the brain to take over and “rewire” to avoid the eye with the problem, she explained, and can cause blindness that is not reversible. It can be avoided if caught early — by the age of seven, it can be too late.
The program started out last fall as a pilot project, which saw children in 19 Niagara schools tested. It wrapped up in January, after the health department, through “close collaboration with the Lions,” worked some start-up snags out of the process, said Gloria Morris, manager of the public health dental program.
“The pilot project was to find a model that would work, with limited resources,” she said, “and to test the feasibility of moving forward with full implementation of the volunteer model.”
Each school visited “taught us something a little different and helped us refine the process.”
With the pilot project behind them, the hope is to visit 150 Niagara schools before the end of June.
Although the province has decided the program should be directed at SK students, it’s not because that’s the ideal age for testing, said Morris, who suggests it would be better to start screening with toddlers.
“The province targeted SK students because of their ability to co-operate, and the testing can get good results,” she said.
The Niagara public health department, said Morris, was invited to present its model for vision screening in a webinar to 35 similar units across the province as a template, although other health units have different ways to implement their programs.
“They won’t all look the same,” she said. Other units have staff carrying out the screening, or are working with other external partners.
“This model is working for us,” said deVlaming-Kot, “because we have such an extremely dedicated group of Lions volunteers. It’s their dedication and passion that is making this work. I’ve learned so much about the Lions, and their desire to help. We couldn’t do it without them.”
And the Lions are helping to spread that all-important message, said Morris: “Take your child to an eye doctor.”