Helping children see is helping them learn

SARAH MACKIE COnducts an eye exam at her office. Photo by Dan Wagner.

SARAH MACKIE COnducts an eye exam at her office. Photo by Dan Wagner.

 

She was a good swimmer but it was her optometrist, not coach, who helped her improve. Once little Sarah Mackie got prescription goggles, the fourth-grader could see the wall at the end of the pool that she used to miss. Thanks to improved sight, the North Carolina native stayed on the swimming team through high school. Today, Mackie helps Manatee children get the help she did. An optometrist at the Eye Center since 2001, Mackie, 41, began by giving 25 to 50 vouchers a year to Manatee school nurses. The nurses gave them to children in need of eye exams and glasses — many without health insurance — but when one school nurse gave Mackie a scrapbook full of thank you notes and pictures from the students helped, she wanted to do more.

In 2014 she and her husband, Michael, also an optometrist, started the nonprofit Eye Center Vision Foundation to help young students see because, “when you can’t see, you can’t keep up,” she said. Mackie spoke with Herald-Tribune correspondent Kim Doleatto about the foundation and its work.

Why did you choose to study optometry?

I knew I wanted to get into medicine. I had a great optometrist and I got prescription eyeglasses as a child. As I got older I got contacts. In high school I told my him about my interest and he let me shadow him. He took a picture of the back of my eye and gave it to me. Since then I was hooked. It looks like a doughnut with a bunch of blood vessels and I kept it on my bathroom window all through medical school. 

How is the foundation run?

It’s any school. If there’s a need, we’re there. We meet with Manatee elementary and high school nurses every year and let them identify the kids in need. At school, they do health screenings and find the students who need glasses but don’t have them. If the parent doesn’t have insurance or can’t afford glasses, that’s when she’ll talk about the foundation. There’s no specific day set aside to see those students. It’s whenever parents can bring them to the Eye Center. All of the doctors here, including me and my husband, work together to make sure all the kids are covered.

How many students in Manatee has the foundation helped?

About 70 so far, year to date. We expect that to double next year.

What are some cases that have stuck out for you most? 

My colleague, Dr. Gillenwaters, saw an elementary school child with a cataract. The only way to fix that is with surgery. Before we had the foundation we would have had to refer her out and she probably wouldn’t have been able to afford it. Now the foundation can cover that and today she can see. Last year, I saw a high-schooler who said he wanted to play soccer but couldn’t see the ball and needed sports glasses. I asked him “what about school?” He said he didn’t care about school, just sports. So we got him two pairs, one for the classroom and one for the field. He was super happy about that.

How big is the need for this type of service?

It’s big. Even while some of these kids have basic health insurance, it rarely covers the cost of glasses and they can be pretty expensive. Parents can’t always afford them. Most times even with insurance, when glasses break, parents have to wait a whole year until they can get another pair. If a child has a prescription, we’ll give them another pair right away. Kids are running around and playing. They’re bound to break them.  

What are some warning signs parents should pay attention to?

When kids are squinting or getting closer to screens. Consistent headaches or if it looks like the eyes aren’t aligned. Also take note when kids avoid reading. Some kids say they don’t like to read when it’s just that it’s uncomfortable for them. I recommend an eye exam at age 4 or 5 even if they’re not showing signs. 

How do you raise money and awareness for the foundation?

Our main fundraiser is an annual beer and food tasting event called Beertopia. We partner with the Hernando de Soto Historical Society and hold it in Lakewood Ranch at Gold Coast Eagle, a major wholesaler of beer that sponsors it. Last year we focused on craft beers. About 10 restaurants set up booths with special bites and we had around 300 people attend. It’s a great way to spend some fun money and find a new beer and restaurant you love. The next one is Feb. 25 and we hope 400 or 500 people will come.

What are your plans for the foundation?

We just want to make sure every kid in our community who can’t afford glasses gets them. 

What do you like to do with your time off?

I like to run. I love sports and love Bucs football games and Auburn games and I’m a huge basketball fan. I also love fishing. I have two girls ages 7 and 5 and they love it too and it’s the only way to get them to eat it. 

How can people help?

They can buy tickets to Beertopia, donate items for the raffles there or help sponsor the event.