Isaac Williams sings in his church choir, but sometimes he struggles to get the lyrics right.
“I need to see the screen to read the words,” Williams said.
Seeing and reading weren’t easy for Williams because he needed corrective lenses, and he hadn’t been to the eye doctor in six years – until Tuesday.
Williams is one of about a dozen patients seen Tuesday at the Midlands Eye Care Clinic, a three-month-old project that provides free exams and glasses for those in need. The clinic operates noon-5 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday of each month at the Richland County Health Department.
For people such as Williams, the clinic is the answer to prayers.
“Richland Memorial used to have a program where you could get glasses” for a reduced price, Williams said. “But that shut down years ago. I wear bifocals, and they got so expensive I couldn’t afford new ones.”
He’s far from alone. Several health care entities got together to start the clinic after seeing the long lines for optical care at MissionSC 2011, the free health care effort at Carolina Coliseum last summer. Hundreds of people had to be turned away because optometrists who volunteered at the event simply ran out of time.
“We knew there was a need, but we didn’t know the need was so great,” said Vince Ford, a senior vice president at Palmetto Health who helped coordinate MissionSC.
A few days after MissionSC, Ford was on the phone with Lonnie Randolph Jr., one of the optometrists who volunteered last summer and an old friend. They knew one day of free eye care per year hardly put a dent in the need, and they began working to set up a more permanent free eye clinic.
Ford brought in Palmetto Health (and about $50,000 in seed funding). Randolph helped recruit the S.C. Optometric Physicians Association. Family Services Center, United Way of the Midlands and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control joined the team. Office space was provided free in the Richland County Health Clinic at 2000 Hampton St. Optometrists donated equipment.
The clinic has one paid, part-time staff member. Everyone else, including the optometrists, volunteer their time.
“When you can get organizations to work together, you can take a little bit and make a lot out of it,” Ford said.
The clinic began with little fanfare in February. There was no need to advertise the opening. The organizations behind the clinic simply guided people in need to it.
Sher Baechtold, a social work case manager with Palmetto Health, helps patients transition to their homes after discharge from the hospital. Many of those patients haven’t been to an eye doctor in ages. A recent patient in his 50s went to the clinic and got his first pair of glasses ever, she said.
“For us, this clinic has been a godsend,” Baechtold said. “They need to read medication bottles. … They’re less like to make a mistake if they can see well.”
The clinic’s services are available to any adult in Richland or Fairfield counties who has no vision insurance and whose household income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The 200 percent level opens the clinic to the working poor, Ford said.
Patients don’t have to pay anything for comprehensive eye exams. Glasses, selected from a small selection of frames, also are free.
The organizers hope to be able to expand the clinic hours to four or eight afternoons a month. The major hurdle is recruiting more volunteer optometrists.
“While we don’t have the numbers I wish we had,” Randolph said. “I’m grateful for all of the good people in the profession willing to help.”
The payoff for those who do the work comes in the form of sincere gratitude.
“The ‘thank yous’ take up as much time as the examination,” Randolph said. “Almost everyone says ‘You sure I don’t owe anything?’”