Southern College of Optometry has trained future optometrists since its founding in 1932. But more than training future eye care providers, the school provides an important service to those in the Memphis community in need of eyewear, screenings and more.
As director of grants and community engagement, Christine Weinreich leads a department that is responsible for Memphis partnerships, community relationships and collaborative programming. That includes finding money outside the school’s alumni base, which includes foundations, corporations and individuals who want to support the school’s efforts to bring vision care to people in the community who can’t access it.
When Weinreich took the position in 2012 it was a new move for SCO. Prior to that time, the school didn’t have one person focused on developing external relationships and community partnerships. Today, the effort is filled by two full-time employees and two part-time students. The school created the department two years ago.
The community impact is clear. The charitable care impact in Memphis was valued at about $725,000 five years ago. During the most recent fiscal year, it was over $1.8 million.
“We’re putting intention in the effort,” Weinreich said. “We’ve garnered some grant funding from local foundations through fabulous programs. We want to build our community outreach and impact to its highest level. That’s how we differentiate from other graduate optometry programs.”
Southern College of Optometry is one of only 21 graduate optometry programs in the country. The school is consistently rated as one of the top, and one way it strives for program greatness is through community investments.
“We’ve established partnerships with many nonprofits and foundations to make sure students are not just learning optometry but the value of giving back to the community,” Weinreich said. “We use our students as tools to make an impact. Graduate students are busy and focused but every now and then we want to make sure they have the opportunity to say, ‘Oh my god, I had the opportunity to save a life today.’ Eighty percent of learning is visually.”
She’s not talking so much about the learning opportunity for the school’s students. Rather, it’s the learning young children can do once they’re able to read thanks to the use of eyeglasses. And that’s a big reason the school’s community efforts are largely focused on children.
“If you can put glasses on a child whose educational prospects are more challenged than other children’s you may change the whole trajectory of their life,” Weinreich said. “We really do change lives.”
SCO cares for 50,000 people in its clinics and another 20,000 people per year in community settings. SCO acquired a mobile unit three years ago that serves the community three days a week. It increases to five days a week in early 2018 thanks to a grant-funded full-time position.
The state mandates that students receive screenings. SCO provides 12,000 to 15,000 in Memphis-area schools per year but that screening only determines if a student needs a full eye exam and doesn’t provide actual care. SCO has a partnership with Achievement School District schools in Frayser. It began three years ago with the first two years at the schools and the last year seeing the students come to SCO.
“It’s not an exact science, and we’re limited by equipment, but we game them full exams at Frayser schools,” Weinreich said. “It’s one thing to put a spoon over your eye and read an eye chart. It’s another to have a full exam.”
The arrangement now is for the students to spend the day at SCO. Teachers use a vacant space at SCO to teach class as students rotate in for eye exams.
“Our philosophy is there are all kinds of reasons those children aren’t performing at grade level. We do have control over this barrier to success with their vision,” Weinreich said. “It’s easy to remove 95 percent of the time. We have the resources and manpower and need to do it.”
Funding these efforts is why Weinreich and her team are so important to the school. Community programs cost money but SCO can’t increase student tuition to pay for the efforts. So fundraising is vital to the success.
The money needed depends on the program. The challenge to provide eye exams to Frayser students, for example, is access. Weinreich said 98 percent of the students are covered under TennCare.
“We can sustain the program by billing 98 percent of kids’ insurance for that benefit,” she said. “They have other barriers like transportation or understanding the importance of an eye exam.”
I Care For Kids is another effort that provides an eye exam and glasses for children who can’t otherwise afford care. SCO provides over $100,000 of free or low-cost vision care to children each year.
Not everything is focused on school-age children. The Infant See effort is a national program for children younger than 1. SCO gives free exams to infants to catch developmental and vision issues early.
SCO also has three public clinics: on its Medical District campus, at the University of Memphis and a new one at Crosstown Concourse, which is a nonprofit clinic. Anyone can visit any of the clinics.
“The experience of going to that clinic is high end,” Weinreich said about the new Crosstown Concourse site. “We want our students to learn in that setting and our patient to have that high-level experience.”
Finally, SCO reaches senior citizens through its nursing home and assisted living program. Eye care providers visit facilities five days a week.
Individuals and companies interested in giving to SCO’s efforts can do so online at www.sco.edu/donate. A formal campaign also launches in early 2018 with a five-year goal of raising $100,000 per year.
pictures courtesy of Southern College of Optometry
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