A Camera Called Spot
Impact America was founded in 2004 to address the consequences of poverty through health, economic, and education-based initiatives. It works in seven states across the Southeast, including North Carolina and South Carolina. Along with the vision screening — called FocusFirst — initiatives include SaveFirst, which provides free income tax preparation services, and SpeakFirst, which empowers teens through competitive debating.
As an AmeriCorps Program, Impact America’s field team includes recent college graduates who commit to a year of service learning.
Ellie Bisese signed on as FocusFirst Team Lead for the Carolinas after graduating from Furman University this past May. She plans to go to medical school but felt called to this unique opportunity.
Through eight hours of training and practice sessions with more experienced team members, she learned to use a high-tech digital camera — called Spot — that photographs a child’s eyes and analyzes the results. Spot produces an immediate “pass” when no problems are detected, or “fail” for potential issues such as nearsightedness, farsightedness or amblyopia, a degenerative vision problem that’s often called “lazy eye.”
Many conditions can easily be treated with glasses — but if they aren’t caught and corrected early, they could lead to long-term vision impairment. Several clinical and research studies have shown that undetected problems often cause children to struggle in the classroom and might slow social development.
Just one month into her job, Bisese was visiting a preschool in South Carolina when a teacher shared a concern about a child who became fidgety and disruptive whenever the class whiteboard was used for a lesson. The screening found severe astigmatism, which meant the little girl had been struggling to see clearly at a distance.
“As the teacher suspected, her acting out may have been triggered by frustration,” Bisese says. “It felt good knowing that we were able to get her back off to a good start.”
The Biggest ‘E’
Since beginning work in South Carolina with a pilot in 2015, Impact America is now screening nearly statewide. It expanded to North Carolina in 2018 and reaches 21 counties there.
Many states provide vision tests for students when they reach kindergarten and first grade; by targeting ages 6 months to 5 years, Impact America reaches children before many untreated problems become complicated.
After Kaylynn Rice’s screening, Cacy Rice remembers her first office visit with a pediatric ophthalmologist the next week. With only her left eye uncovered, Kaylynn couldn’t see the biggest “E” on the eye chart. The ophthalmologist diagnosed amblyopia and the 4‑year-old began receiving extensive vision therapy.
Today, Kaylynn has grown from a shy little girl into a precocious 8‑year-old who loves to read and write. Her eyesight is much improved, and Cacy gives all the credit to early detection.
“From everything I’ve learned about amblyopia, you want to get it diagnosed while visual pathways are still growing because it can result in permanent blindness if left untreated,” she says. “I’ll be forever grateful to Impact America for saving my daughter’s vision.