by Satina Richardson

Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice’s legal work celebrates second chances for incarcerated men ages 50-plus and getting a new lease on life after decades of incarceration for offenses without physical injury. A partnership with UAB Eye Care is eliminating the barrier of access to eye and vision care for those preparing to reenter society when people their age are typically preparing to leave the workforce.

Appleseed’s mission is to provide justice and equity for all Alabamians. Most of its clients have few resources readily available so the organization provides essentials, including clothing, transportation and referrals for medical care. All of this is part of the six-month or more reentry support Appleseed provides to help clients relearn the basics of living everyday life. Providing access to free eye and vision care plus free glasses through UAB Eye Care is part of the program.

Community Eye Care (CEC), the community service arm of the UAB Eye Care, became an Appleseed partner in 2021. Since then, the CEC team has provided care to all Appleseed clients experiencing the reentry process.

“Decades without a thorough eye exam can be detrimental to a person’s health, so Appleseed prioritizes eye exams, in addition to other general medical exams, for the average client,” said Alex McKenzie LaGanke, JD, MPA, Appleseed staff attorney. “Being able to provide our clients access to eye care through UAB Eye Care not only ensures safe driving and workplace safety but also rules out various illness and disease, among other precautions, all of which are essential to successful reentry.”

Janene Sims, OD, PhD, CEC director, reiterated the importance of eye care as part of a routine healthcare regimen. She explained that not having a comprehensive eye exam over a period of time puts someone’s vision at risk since some conditions, like glaucoma, aren’t obvious until vision loss occurs. Because eye doctors can detect problems from systemic conditions, including high blood pressure, certain cancers and diabetes, other health conditions could go undiagnosed and untreated without a comprehensive eye exam.  

Joe Bennett on his release day.Joe Bennett is one of Appleseed’s clients who visited UAB Eye Care. In 1997, Bennett was given two life-without-parole sentences for two counts of robbery stemming from a single incident at a barbecue restaurant in Birmingham’s Eastlake neighborhood. He was released in 2021 at 53-years-old due in part to changes in the Alabama Habitual Felony Offender Act. Bennett has been working at a tree service since his release and is now employed full-time there.

"This was the most thorough eye examination I have ever received in my life,” he said. “I am pleased and appreciative to be a patient of UAB Eye Care."

CEC offers the only accessible, subsidized eye care program that Appleseed has located and LaGanke is pleased with the care her clients have received through the partnership. “UAB Eye Care has displayed the utmost professionalism, consideration, and quality of care to our organization and clients. The immense value Community Eye Care adds to our reentry work and communities generally cannot be quantified.”

Sims said the CEC and Appleseed make a great team. “Our partnership with Appleseed lines up perfectly with our goal of providing quality care to those in need regardless of their ability to pay,” she said. “We feel fortunate to play a role in enhancing the lives of people in need and look forward to a relationship that will last for years to come.”