Explore UAB

by Nathan Anderson

Community Eye Care (CEC), the UAB School of Optometry’s community outreach arm, celebrated 50 years of providing vision screenings and comprehensive eyecare to underserved communities while training future optometrists to provide compassionate care. To date, the program has cared for approximately 25,000 patients.

In 1973, David W. Davidson, OD, launched Community Vision Services (CVS) as a small rotation for fourth year students to gain experience by screening children in the Jefferson County Head Start Program. CVS soon after expanded to allow second and third year optometry students to provide vision care to children and adults within Jefferson and neighboring counties. To reduce confusion with the methods course, Clinical Evaluation of Visual System (CEVS), the name of the service was changed to Community Eye Care.

What started as a screening service has grown to include comprehensive eye exams. Though some UAB schools have volunteer community clinics, CEC is a required rotation for second and third year optometry students. Today, second year screening rotations include hundreds of pediatric and adult screening locations throughout the Birmingham metro area, including schools, daycares, churches, businesses and senior centers.

Third and fourth year interns perform comprehensive eye exams Monday through Friday at a six-exam lane eye clinic at Western Health Center. The second year screening rotations includes hundreds of pediatric and adult screening locations throughout the Birmingham Metro area, including schools, daycares, churches, businesses and senior centers.

The program has evolved over the last half-century thanks to civic-minded UAB Optometry leaders and support from the school’s community, the community at large and generous corporate benefactors.

CEC developed the most under current director Janene Sims, OD, PhD, and Felton Perry, OD. Now retired, Perry served as director from 1996 to 2018, and Sims was named director in 2018.

“Everything people do is based on having the ability to see,” Perry recalled. “So, CEC’s mission has been to take care of the eye care needs of people within Alabama,” he said. “We made it so citizens across Alabama can have access to eye care.”

Sims added, “We understand the importance of eye care, and we don’t want people who are struggling to choose between buying food or purchasing glasses.”

CEC expanded into Alabama’s Black Belt under Perry’s leadership when, in 2002, he partnered with the Black Belt Clinic Adult Eye Care Clinic project led by Mary Jean Sanspree, PhD, to create the Black Belt Clinic Initiative. This program provided eye and vision care in Alabama’s poorest region but lost funding in 2007. This was when CEC began treating underserved Black Belt communities independently, in conjunction with local outreach programs.

Sims expanded local outreach when she joined the CEC team to further enhance the program’s ability to improve students’ proficiency in basic optometric examination skills by exposing them to a non-traditional clinical environment.

No matter the location, the CEC team of faculty, staff, and students has encountered unforgettable moments that demonstrate the importance of the team’s efforts. Sims described a time when a screening resulted in a life-altering diagnosis.

Years ago, CEC conducted vision screenings at Birmingham’s Protective Life Insurance company over four days. The IT director, William Jeffries, told Sims about his vision issues while helping set up their screening.

His exam revealed bleeding in the retina, swelling of both maculas, and a suspicious, discolored area in the retina of one eye. Sims referred him to retinal specialists at Vision America and UAB Callahan Eye Hospital, where he was diagnosed with choroidal melanoma. Although he lost vision in one eye, Sims said that CEC’s intervention helped stop his condition from worsening and possibly saved his life.

“Eyecare partners, local businesses and even alumni give back to CEC, because they see our impact in people’s lives,” Sims said. “Because of their support, CEC will remain impactful for years to come. Every form of support, large or small, makes a difference.”

Vision Service Plan (VSP) is a longtime corporate benefactor providing year-round vouchers for comprehensive eye exams and glasses. It has teamed with CEC for some of its most impactful outreach initiatives.

For instance, after 62 tornadoes hit Alabama on April 27, 2011, VSP created mobile clinics that enabled doctors to provide eye exams and distribute free glasses in Alabama’s hardest-hit areas. The relief mission lasted through May, helping 1,000 people.

In 2014, VSP partnered with CEC to create Gift of Sight, an event that focuses on helping those in need during the holiday season. The annual giving event has provided free comprehensive eye exams and glasses to more than 2,000 patients.

Going forward, Sims hopes to expand CEC’s opportunities to interact more with the UAB community.

“We want to do more right here at UAB,” she said. “When we have people who are hospitalized or in palliative care and need eyecare at UAB, who better to see them than CEC? As I look toward the future, I am filled with joy thinking about the difference we make today and will continue making for years to come."