For more than 25 years, members of the Kentucky Optometric Association have examined the eyes of more than 50,000 low-income workers free of charge through the Kentucky Vision Project.
They've done it very quietly, but I don't think it should be kept quiet any longer.
In strained economic times, when workers are under-employed and uninsured or under-insured, this should be screamed from the mountaintops.
"We haven't advertised a lot lately," said Darlene Eakin, executive director of the optometric association. "But the agencies are aware of it."
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Those agencies — the Salvation Army; Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas Counties; and Kentucky Home Place — serve as clearinghouses for applicants who must meet federal guidelines before their paperwork is sent to the association, she said. Applicants can download an application or obtain one from an agency. An eligible applicant will be notified where to go for an examination. This service is offered only one time to each applicant.
That's it. That's as complicated as it gets.
If the optometrist determines that glasses are called for, Kentucky Vision Project asks for a $25 donation to defray some of the cost.
The last pair of glasses I bought cost about $300. Do you see why I want more folks to know about this?
The Vision Project, which began in 1985, was a forerunner of a similar national program established in 1991. It has received accolades from the General Assembly and even the White House. More than than 200 optometrists participate in the program, giving free examinations about once a week.
One is Bill Reynolds, owner of Eye Care Centers Optometrists, which has two offices in Richmond and one each in Beattyville, Irvine, Georgetown, McKee and Lexington. Reynolds has participated in the Vision Project since he graduated in 1985.
Reynolds said each optometrist in his practice has agreed to see a project participant at least once a week.
"We have seen several hundred to more than 1,000 patients," Reynolds said. "At times there are a lot of patients, and other times there are not."
They frequently find people needing glasses, but they also have found a large number of cases of diabetes, which is a leading cause of blindness, and glaucoma, which can silently rob people of eyesight.
"If we find a problem, then we're able to treat the problem," Reynolds said. "It is a one-time program unless we find a problem. It would be immoral to send them away."
That's why an eye examination is so important, Eakin said. Early diagnosis is crucial in preventing loss of vision and maintaining good eye health.
"It is not unusual to do an eye exam and detect diabetes, hypertension and even brain tumors," she said. "If you can't see, it limits your opportunities for employment. Sometimes people are surprised to learn that an optometrist can learn a lot about your overall health."
The Vision Project is privately funded, mostly by the Kentucky Optometrists Association, Eakin said.
There are about 550 optometrists in Kentucky, she said. Of that number, 200 participate in the project. "I've never called someone who didn't respond" with a free exam, she said.
Generally, it takes about six weeks from the time the applicant is approved until the applicant is seen by an optometrist.
Go to Kyeyes.org/kvpapplicati850.cfm to download the application or call 1-800-320-2406 to have one mailed to you.
Reynolds, who also works with the Lions Club and with a clinic in Kingston, Jamaica, said he donates his time to help those who are struggling because that is what we all should do.
"We are very blessed and fortunate," he said. "We have an obligation to do this."