Partnership with Bon Secours promotes free vision care for homeless

December 1, 2013


For decades, Dr. Darrell Jervey, an ophthalmologist from Greenville, S.C., had been tending to the eye care needs of the poor in Haiti during volunteer mission trips through his church, Christ Church Episcopal in Greenville.

But it wasn't until he retired last year that he was able to devote more time to the vision screening needs of the homeless in his own community.

Through a partnership with Bon Secours St. Francis Health System and Surgeons for Sight, a nonprofit organization founded by the ophthalmologists at Southern Eye Associates, where Jervey worked until his retirement, homeless people in the Greenville area can receive free exams, reading glasses, prescription eyeglasses or referrals for cataract or other eye surgery.

Jervey provides vision screenings free of charge every other Tuesday at Triune Mercy Center, a nondenominational church in downtown Greenville that offers a variety of services to the homeless. The center also draws clients from other Bon Secours community nursing sites of San Sebastian and West Antioch Church.

Bon Secours provides nursing staff and social workers at the three community nursing sites.

Client Mary Katherine Robertson describes the eye care services as "the best thing that could happen in my life.

"I have difficulty seeing. I am homeless, and I don't have any money to go anywhere professionally," she said. "These glasses will help me to read and fill out applications."

The need is great. Surgeons for Sight estimates that 16,000 people in upstate South Carolina need eye care and cannot afford it. The organization, founded in 2009 to help those who had no health insurance and no access to eye care, puts the number of people worldwide with preventable blindness at 36 million.

Jervey said he has enough potential clients that he could work every day at Triune Mercy Center.

"Most people's needs are very simple — they can't afford reading glasses or prescription glasses," he said.

But others "need more help than just making them see," he said. "Every one of these folks has got a story." Jervey recalled having some difficulty testing the vision of one client who was in his 40s. The problem, it turned out, was not only that the man could not see the letters but that he could not read. He had tried to apply for many jobs over the years but had not been hired because of his inability to read. The man enrolled in a literacy program at Triune Mercy Center and "is beginning to do very well," Jervey reported. "That is the type of thing we run into all the time. It's really gratifying to be able to respond to real needs."

Jervey also recalled a 21-year-old client he identified only as Jason, who was homeless and unemployed when he received eyeglasses through Surgeons for Sight. Soon after, he obtained a job as a cook for a local restaurant and was able to see to study the recipes. He has since moved into an apartment with some roommates and is saving money for a car.

Not that there aren't challenges. The vision screenings are provided by appointment, but the lives of the homeless don't always fit into a schedule. "We may schedule 10 to 15 people, and five or 10 may show up," Jervey said.

Various organizations fund the glasses provided at the center, and other members of Surgeons for Sight perform surgeries or follow-up examinations as needed.

In 2012, 540 people received vision screenings, 1,449 eyeglasses were dispensed and 85 cataract surgeries were performed, all free of charge.

Jervey's involvement in the project "sprang out of many years of going to Haiti," he said. Beginning in 1970, he helped establish what has now grown to five eye clinics that operate independently and have served more than a million people in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

Soon after its founding, Surgeons for Sight expanded its service internationally and has provided screenings, eye surgeries and eyeglasses in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Ecuador and China.

"Poverty and blindness have been shown to be related as impoverished individuals are more likely to become blind because of lack of health care access, and blindness in turn prevents individuals from attaining employment," according to promotional materials for Surgeons for Sight. "In addition to economic problems, vision problems also greatly impact families. Mobility and independence are restricted and individuals are left having to depend on family members for even the smallest tasks."

The organization also trains church mission groups with no medical skills to dispense eyeglasses on their trips. The program has extended Surgeons for Sight's reach to Uganda, South Africa, Jamaica, Belize and other countries.

But back at home, clients like Eiress Hurt find the service provided by Jervey, Surgeons for Sight and Bon Secours St. Francis Health System to be life-changing.

"Not having insurance, it's hard to be able to go to any doctor," she said. "It really is a blessing to have people to take time out, to be interested in someone and their eyesight and health."


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.