Six to eight times a year Dr. Paul Berman leaves his optometric practice in Hackensack, New Jersey and travels to the sites of various Special Olympics games happening around the world.
It was 21 years ago that he realized the absence of vision care among other health services being provided to special needs athletes and, in response, founded the Special Olympics Lions Club International Opening Eyes program.
Opening Eyes is a facet of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program which aims to improve the quality of health care received by individuals with intellectual disabilities. According to its website, the Healthy Athletes program has trained more than 100,000 health professionals to treat people within the special needs demographic.
“Doctors feel intimidated because they’re not as familiar with special needs patients,” says Dr. Kimberly Friedman, one of New Jersey’s Opening Eyes Clinical Directors. “Within five minutes of being there (volunteers) feel completely comfortable. It’s simple for any doctor to jump in and feel right at home.”
Dr. Sharon Manto, a 12-year volunteer for Opening Eyes, agrees. She says working with Special Olympics athletes has taught her to be more patient with the people she sees in her office and to recognize that not everyone is the same.
The New Jersey Special Olympic Summer Games take place each year in early June at the College of New Jersey. Last year, volunteers performed 280 vision screenings, provided 146 athletes with prescription glasses, 73 received rec specs with prescriptions, and 141 athletes walked away with sunglasses. In addition, 22 athletes were referred to members of the New Jersey Society of Optometric Physicians for follow up care.
“It’s tiring, but you feel happy,” says Dr. Manto. “We do a really good job and want to see as many people as we can.”
According to Dr. Friedman, New Jersey has one of the most organized Opening Eyes programs in the nation. Edna McKinney, who serves as administrative assistant to the program, spends months recruiting optometrists, paraoptometrics, and optometry students to volunteer.
McKinney acknowledges the time commitment and the fact that many optometric physicians and their staff keep weekend hours, making it hard to volunteer for an event that’s held over a Saturday and Sunday.
“Fortunately, there are options for Opening Eyes volunteers,” says McKinney. “People can sign up to be at the games for half a day on Saturday, either at the beginning or end of the day. So that should help those who have to be at the office for part of the day, or with their families.”
Student volunteers also have the same flexibility but, according to McKinney, funds allocated by Special Olympics for overnight accommodations make it easy for Salus University (Elkins Park, PA) and SUNY Optometry (New York, NY) volunteers to spend the night and participate in screenings for the duration of the event.
Vittorio Mena, a third year student at Salus University, says he started volunteering at the games so that he could begin to get involved in the community to which he hopes to return after graduation. He sees the event as a chance to connect with local optometrists, optometry students from other schools, and a patient demographic he’s had little exposure to. But there was another interaction he hadn’t been expecting.
“I was performing tests on each of the athletes, one of them I recognized as someone familiar,” Mena recalls. “He recognized me immediately. We (had gone to) the same high school and were able to catch up real quick.”
For returning volunteers, the familiarity factor is something they look forward to. Many receive hugs from athletes they helped in years past. As Dr. Friedman puts it, “we get much more out of it than we give.”
Currently, the Special Olympics Lions Club Opening Eyes program is run at 130 Special Olympics events around the world. Dr. Berman, Dr. Su Danberg (Connecticut) and Dr. Sandy Block (Illinois) manage approximately 4000 volunteers globally with the help of Clinical Directors, including New Jersey’s Dr. Friedman, Dr. Bruce Meyer and Dr. Margaret Facey-Campbell. Together, they are gearing up to host the National Games in New Jersey in 2014.