Each year in April, National Volunteer Week encourages individuals and groups to harness a spirit of service and outreach in their local communities. By participating in civic engagement, disenfranchised groups are helped, and volunteers experience joy and fulfillment from giving back.
At Heersink School of Medicine, our faculty, staff, trainees, and students volunteer in varying roles. From jumping into action when natural disaster strikes to collecting coats during the severe cold and rebuilding the lives of men experiencing homeless, Heersink prides itself on the ways our people make a difference every day.
One group within the school is making a significant difference to children with vision impairment and their families. Organized and hosted by the UAB Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, the Songs for Sight Youth Low Vision Support Group brings together children with low vision or vision impairment with an opportunity to connect with other children like them. The Songs for Sight Youth Low Vision Support Group meets several times a year, but the weekend retreat is an annual gathering that offers relaxation, support, and encouragement to children with permanent vision impairment (VI) and their families.
“Because vision impairment and blindness are rare in kids (2 to 3 per 10,000), many didn’t know another child with VI until they came to our meetings. It lets them meet others who really get it,” said Dawn DeCarlo, O.D., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and director of the UAB Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation. “These kids are so happy to be together.”
The weekend getaway began with two benefit concerts in 2009 and 2011 called "Songs for Sight" at the Alys Stephens Center, organized by Alie B. Gorrie, and her parents. In 2014, Songs for Sight was awarded the inaugural Hall Thompson Hero for Sight Award by Sight Savers America. The Gorries are long-time advocates for vision research and donors of the center, including gifts of $500,000 and many others.
Like other years, this year, the Songs for Sight Youth Low Vision Support Group weekend will be held at Children’s Harbor. “The facilities at Children’s Harbor are incredible,” said DeCarlo. “The lake is such a peaceful and energizing place where all families can gather, have fun and unwind.” DeCarlo also mentioned that the weekend event would not be possible were it not for the donated facility by Children’s Harbor. “Our expenses are for food and activities only.”
In the same way, the weekend would not be possible without the help of volunteers. DeCarlo said it takes many hands to get the weekend coordinated. When asked what volunteers do during the weekend, she said, "They do so many things! Some help in the food area. Since this is a weekend camp, all meals are provided in a cafeteria area (the food is catered, but we still need volunteer help). Most help with kids activities—crafts and games on Saturday, campfire and s’mores on Friday, and Sunday morning with more kids activities. They also help keep things clean and organized and make sure all of the kids feel important and included.”
DeCarlo said it typically takes 20-25 volunteers to keep the weekend moving, but this year the group is staying in compliance with UAB's recommendations for no more than 100 people at an outdoor event. And, excitingly, “We have several alumni of our group who are now successful college graduates coming back as volunteers this year.”
The Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation faculty and staff also volunteer their time and efforts to make the weekend a success. “Myself, Drs. Elise Agostinelli and Marissa Locy, our occupational therapist, Jason Vice, OTR/L, and my research coordinator, Caroline Durena will all be there volunteering. We also have some volunteers who’ve come back year after year. Megan Jacobi, a first-year UAB optometry student, has been volunteering with us for over a decade, as has my daughter, Julia DeCarlo, who will be entering UAB School of Dentistry this summer,” said DeCarlo.
DeCarlo explained that volunteering fills in the gaps of needs within our community and for families. “Our clinic does amazing things for people with vision loss, but this support group takes things to the next level. It's not paid for by medical billing, and we need to be good stewards of the donated funds that pay for these events—volunteers help us stretch that money to help more people.”
For many families, this is their only family vacation, and they are all so appreciative, DeCarlo expressed. “I’m thoroughly exhausted after the weekend, but in the most fantastic way. These kids are so inspirational and fun to be around.”
The UAB Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation works with people of all ages to help maximize their quality of life—including providing state-of-the-art clinical care, cutting-edge research, and support groups for children. Read more about the center or how the Gorries have made a difference in the Birmingham community for those with vision impairment.