Sims encourages students’ passion for community service

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sims 2021 streamJanene Sims, O.D., Ph.D.While Janene Sims was growing up in the lower Georgia town of Milan, she watched her father sell the vegetables he grew on the family farm. Milan was a small, rural town, and her father knew that some residents couldn’t afford to buy his produce; to those he gave it away at no cost. Sims says his example has stuck with her throughout her life.

“This was my first experience with someone giving to the community,” she said. “He knew they couldn’t afford it and would always volunteer to do things to help out.”

Today, Sims, O.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor of optometry and supervisor of the family practice residency in the School of Optometry, where she is known for her dedication to serving the community.

For her efforts, she was selected to receive the 2020 Odessa Woolfolk Community Service Award, which recognizes a faculty member who has rendered outstanding service to the Birmingham community in education, economic development, health care delivery, the arts, social services, human rights and urban and public affairs. Sims will be recognized during a reception later this fall; more details to come in The eReporter. 

Continuing a tradition

“I want them to become comfortable talking to people and being involved in the community.”

In her roles at UAB, Sims encourages community service and engagement among her students . As service director of Community Eye Care, the mobile community outreach component of UAB Eye Care, she travels annually to day care facilities, preschools, senior centers and elementary schools to host vision screenings. The CEC team also travels to the Blackbelt regions of the state to provide comprehensive eye exams and glasses for the un- and under-insured.  Each December, CEC also hosts the Gift of Sight, an annual holiday event that provides comprehensive eye exams and glasses at no cost to Birmingham’s uninsured and underserved. Sims also is the faculty adviser for the UAB chapter of the National Optometric Student Association, which has won national awards for its work in the Birmingham community.

Service is learning

Community screenings help second-year optometry students practice communicating with patients and learn to perform eye exams, Sims explains.

She also still implements a course exercise that she first experienced while in optometry school at UAB. Optometry Professor Melvin Shipp, O.D., DrPH, asked his students to come up with a speech that they could use to educate laypersons about the importance of vision care or inform them of certain eye disorders. The speeches could include anything from discussions of eye exams, screenings and vision problems or how to get into optometry school, she says.

“I want them to become comfortable talking to people and being involved in the community,” Sims said. “He told me that interns don’t realize that one day, they’ll be leaders in their communities and people will want to ask things about their health. What better way to be comfortable speaking with them than to start speaking about it now?”

Local work

In addition to community vision screenings, Sims and her students also work with area organizations such as Children’s Village, where they provide designer glasses to promote self-esteem, and local schools such as Ramsay High School, where students guest-teach science classes and instruct students in dissecting cow eyes.

“It’s important to just be involved, to stand up and say you’ll fix snacks or keep time or organize something. You become that person. If I’m not active, it’s because I’m not feeling well — and I think it’s good for me to stay active.”

“We take over an anatomy class and teach that section,” she said. “The teachers absolutely love it, and that’s how I get students to be involved in the classroom.”

Sims also is active in her church, Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church Ishkooda, where she often does “whatever needs to be done,” such as help organize CPR certification training, flu shot clinics or annual health fairs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sims helped organize drive-thru flu shots and the church’s safe reentry plan. While her children were in Birmingham schools, she was secretary and treasurer for the booster club, coordinated schedules for and worked in the concession stand, organized fundraisers and more — all because of that passion for community service instilled by watching her father’s generosity.

“It’s important to just be involved, to stand up and say you’ll fix snacks or keep time or organize something,” Sims said. “You become that person. If I’m not active, it’s because I’m not feeling well — and I think it’s good for me to stay active.”