Volunteers stress importance of early screenings for children

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FARMINGTON — For years, volunteers with the Farmington Lions Club have administered free eye exams to students in pre-kindergarten through first grades.

And that tradition continued today when club members Marilyn Montoya and Connie Alley, along with volunteer Charlene Jaeger, offered eye testing to students at Bloomfield's Central Primary School.

Those students will join the more than 2,000 kids in San Juan County who will be tested as part of the Operation KidSight program this year.

Montoya, a certified eye screener with the program, explained volunteers screen for six areas, including astigmatism and farsightedness and nearsightedness.

"If an abnormality is found, we’ll refer the child to an eye doctor to do a more extensive dilated exam," she said. "From there, prescription glasses can be made."

For most families, Medicaid covers additional testing. But if the family is uninsured and cannot afford it, the Lions Club pays for testing, as well as up to two pairs of glasses per child each year, Montoya said.

Montoya stressed the importance early screenings, saying it can be frustrating when parents don’t take those early tests seriously.

"If kids get in to see a doctor and get treated before the age of 10, up to 90 percent of the issues can be stopped or reversed," she said. "Over 10 years old, the damage can be permanent, because the eye stops growing around that time. It’s so important to get the child screened and get them in glasses before then."

The Lions Club's screening process takes less than a minute. The child stands in front of a hand-held camera that locks on the pupils and captures a digital image of the eyes. The image is analyzed on a nearby computer, which determines whether the child passed the test or should be referred for additional examination.

During today's screening, two students from one class of 15 were referred for more tests, both for farsightedness.

While most of the detected problems can be corrected with glasses, sometimes more serious issues are discovered.

"Several years ago, there was a mom who was absolutely livid that her daughter got a referral," Montoya said. "But when the child went to be screened by the doctor, she was diagnosed as being early diabetic. The mom came to me and said, 'I’m so sorry about the way I acted. You were wonderful to find this.'"

Montoya, who worked previously as a school counselor, said undetected eye problems can also hinder a child's ability to succeed in school.

"When I used to see kids (as a counselor), they were usually either in trouble or they were doing really great," she said. "I think a lot of the time when they were in trouble it was because they were lost in school; they couldn’t read because they couldn’t see. I think if they could see, it would have made a big difference."

Karen Pacheco is a teacher for the visually impaired who travels to the schools in the Bloomfield School District to help teachers enhance learning for children with eye problems. She also stressed the need for early detection.

"Sometimes it’s a cortical visual impairment — a neurological brain issue," she said. "So it’s very important that intervention occur at a young age."

Alley said volunteering with the club is very rewarding.

"It’s so affirming because what we do really helps the kids," she said. "It’s so great when you hear them say, 'I can see now!'"

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621. 

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