The Eyes Have It

The work of Prevent Blindness NC

By Carol Wills
Photos by Matt Williams Photography

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Anya Helfrich and Wendy Aves love their jobs – and it’s easy to see why. Helfrich is the Certification Program Director and Aves is the Certification and Community Screening Coordinator for Prevent Blindness NC (PBNC). Their work promotes the efforts of this agency to provide statewide vision screening training, direct-service screening, and follow-up services across the age spectrum in collaboration with child care centers, public schools, and other partner agencies. PBNC is an independent affiliate of a national organization, Prevent Blindness.

Studies show that one in 10 preschool children and one in four school-age children have vision problems. PBNC partners with school nurses all over Wake County to train school staff and volunteer groups to conduct mass vision screenings in schools. PBNC’s preschool program visits 50 centers in Raleigh and 13 in Cary.

Helfrich explains the process like this: “Normally when you think of vision screening, you think of a vision chart – which is not appropriate in some scenarios,” she says. “For young children, we use a photo-refractive vision screening technology which involves a device similar to a camera.”

One four-year-old girl referred for an eye exam and fitted with glasses was described by her grateful mother as having improved behavior, attitude, and general demeanor. “If it were not for your program, I wouldn’t have known how bad my daughter’s vision was,” her mother said.

Many children with vision problems come from families who cannot afford eye exams and glasses, so PBNC matches these children with vouchers donated to the agency in-kind. And some adults face the same limitations. “There’s no point in screening someone and finding out they have a vision problem if they can’t access an eye exam for diagnosis and treatment,” Helfrich says. Aves adds, “The voucher program allows us to assist needy families promptly.” Of the 39,500 children screened in Wake County during the 2015-2016 school year, 2,900 had to be referred for an eye exam. Last year, PBNC gave 99 children’s vouchers and 37 adult vouchers in Wake County, with a total value of $16,070.

There are two particularly vulnerable periods for significant vision loss or blindness – early childhood and advanced age. Just because a child or adult has normal vision one year does not mean that their vision will not change the next. PBNC screening programs are designed to detect problems as soon as they arise and before the individual is impacted by the negative consequences that untreated vision problems can cause.  Helfrich can speak to the need for trained vision screeners in every school. But screening school children is only part of PBNC’s program.

PBNC conducts adult screenings in community health clinics – focusing on diabetic screening, since people with untreated diabetes are 25 times more likely to lose their sight than the general population. “As many as 50 percent of people with diabetes are not getting regular eye exams,” says Aves. “We are working with low-income, high-risk populations.”

Their adult vision screening program uses a special camera to view the retina, making it possible to detect such conditions as diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, and glaucoma. John Denny, MD, who serves as the Board Chairman for PBNC, points out that the adult retinal screening program provides cutting-edge telemedicine to North Carolinians who would otherwise face significant barriers to receiving eye care. “This program reaches populations where financial limitations can result in vision loss,” he says.

This work calls for generous support from North Carolina citizens and the companies they work for. Additional funding comes from the state, from foundation funding, individual donations and special events. Vouchers, to the tune of $200,000, are donated from across the state. PBNC maintains a presence each year at the NC State Fair, where people can get initial screening from trained volunteers. Last year, PBNC did 1,600 adult vision screenings over the course of 11 days of the fair. They also do screenings at health clinics and senior centers for a total of eight different screening events in Wake County.

This will be the 26th year for the tennis tournament which is PBNC’s big yearly fundraiser. The tournament, will take place August 4th-6th and is hosted by the MacGregor Downs Country Club. Friday evening patron tickets are $40, and the mixed doubles tournament team entry costs $100 and includes an event t-shirt and breakfast and lunch on Saturday for each team member. Tournament entry and admission for two to the Patron Party is $160, and all donations are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. Visit pbnc.org for more information.