On the sparsely populated prairies of Kansas, you can see the country stretch for miles around you. But the same isolation that offers wide views of open skies and wheat fields means difficulties for the state’s estimated 1,000 children who are blind or have low vision.
This was the case for Dylan Ferguson, who struggled with access to proper vision care for most of his childhood. When he was just 6 months old, Dylan’s parents realized something was different about his vision. Later, when glasses weren’t enough to help Dylan see the board in school, he started acting out.
Dylan Ferguson tests a low vision aid.
“Anything that can affect your ability to use your vision can be called low vision,” says Lion Joseph Maino, an optometrist and low vision consultant for the Kansas State School for the Blind (KSSB). “Reading is very important. The inability to actually see the print and make sense out of it causes a big problem when we’re trying to learn things. When you have a vision deficit it really makes learning difficult.”
The small population of most areas of Kansas means access to low vision resources are limited or nonexistent. Many families with low vision children are forced to travel hundreds of miles or wait several years for access to treatment and medical professionals. Dylan and his parents bounced from doctor to doctor, traveling as far as Springfield, Missouri–more than 350 miles–to see a low vision specialist.
But this all changed thanks to a $71,000 SightFirst grant from Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF) for the expansion of the KanLovKids program–a partnership between the Kansas Lions Sight Foundation, the KSSB and the Kansas
The partnership led to establishing 10 outreach centers in under-served regions of the state and a mobile clinic serving children in the least populated areas. Specialized training,
equipment and follow-up care have also been made available to the hundreds of children and educators participating in the program.
Thanks to a new center closer to his home, Dylan only has to travel an hour to see his optometrist, Dr. Kendall Krug, a Lion and consultant for the KanLovKids project. KanLovKids provides Dylan with crucial vision aids such as magnifiers. These devices allow his full participation in classroom activities and even help Dylan enjoy new activities outside of school.
“It’s literally changed his life forever with the things they’ve helped him do. And I could never put into words how appreciative [we are] and how much they’ve helped change Dylan’s life,” says Jennifer Ferguson, Dylan’s stepmother. “Without Dr. Krug, we’d still be driving to Springfield.”
LCIF’s SightFirst grant enabled the 10 regional clinics to purchase the necessary equipment to perform free low vision screenings, as well as provided the funds to train optometrists and other medical professionals on issues specific to the low vision and blind community.
“It’s very important, especially with children, that you get them help as soon as you can,” says Maino. “We provide the child with tools so that they can read, they can write, they can
participate in classroom discussions.” KanLovKids operates with additional support from the Kansas Lions Sight Foundation, which donates $10,000 per year to cover the cost of evaluations. The program spans the entirety of childhood, serving children from birth to 21 years of age.
Vision, like the children themselves, is constantly changing, so KanLovKids makes sure its participants receive continuous support. The regional centers allow children to check in regularly and receive adjustments to treatment and services. The centers even participate in a lending library of assistive devices available to students and school districts.
The new low vision centers mean the maximum travel distance required to receive service in Kansas is just 100 miles. But for the most isolated parts of the state, a mobile clinic has also been established to provide care and evaluations for groups of five or more children in the hopes that, with proper support, students can stay in their regular classrooms.
“The LCIF SightFirst grant has been a godsend for the children who are visually impaired in Kansas,” says Maino. “Children would have to wait three, sometimes four years, before I would get a chance to see them and work with them. The grant has allowed us to provide care at the point in time when the child needs it most.”
Low vision often goes undiagnosed without obvious symptoms. In an effort to raise awareness, the SightFirst grant also helped create a website featuring distance learning opportunities, low vision resources and other educational materials.
Joshua can complete college coursework on his laptop thanks to low vision devices.
With the help of Lions, the KSSB and the right devices, there’s no limit to what students can accomplish. Just ask Joshua Harsch, who, with the help of the KSSB, received specialized software that allows him to attend Kansas City Kansas Community College.
“Before I came here, I was basically just struggling along, hoping to get through the day,” says Harsch. “As soon as I came here, I was shocked because there was so much opportunity. And I was actually very happy for once.”
Watch a video about this story online here.
*This story by Eric Margules originally appeared in the September 2014 edition of LION Magazine.