The Eyes Have It

United States, August 15, 2006

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Rhonda Barton/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Lynn Hobbs's organization, The Eyes Have It, has served thousands of children whose families could not otherwise afford vision care. Photo: Rhonda Barton/Mercy Corps

New Orleans, Louisiana - Lynn Hobbs lost her home, her office, and - worst of all - her eldest son in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Such circumstances might break and embitter a person - but not Hobbs.

Multiple tragedies have only strengthened her resolve to provide eye care and health education to the children of this battered city.

Hobbs is the director and dynamo behind The Eyes Have It, a nonprofit agency that offers vision screenings, eye examinations and free or discounted eyeglasses at almost a dozen public schools scattered around New Orleans. In the wake of the storm, with all but a handful of the city's schools closed and medical services severely strained, Hobbs and her staff have managed to screen almost 3,000 youngsters - including 700 displaced students in four schools in Baton Rouge.

Mercy Corps helped Hobbs's organization continue and expand its life-changing work with a grant of $18,480. These funds have paid for a computer and partial salaries for two clinical technicians who assist Hobbs in her work. The funding is especially critical this year since one of Hobbs's primary sources of revenue - the Orleans Parish school district - remains in financial and physical ruins.

"Vision care for children is one of the city's greatest unmet needs, both before and after Hurricane Katrina," Hobbs says.

A fortunate change in plans

Meeting the need wasn't something she planned on as her life's work: Hobbs was an established mental health social worker when her son Jonathon begged her to help one of his high school football teammates.

"He couldn't read the playbook and the coach had written him off as mentally retarded," Hobbs remembers, "but Jonathon said the kid needed glasses and I had to ‘hook him up.' I said, ‘why can't his mom do that,' but Jonathon told me she was on crack."

Hobbs persuaded a friend to screen the teen, who had minus 700 vision in one eye - meaning that he had severe visual impairment. Shortly after that, the football coach talked her into arranging screenings for all of the school's teams.

"Since my job was to assist in developing learning plans for special education students, I noticed that a lot of kids were wrongly placed in that program or labeled as mentally retarded because they had a vision or hearing problem," Hobbs says. That fact got her thinking that all children deserved an accurate diagnosis and corrective action, if needed.

Hobbs started The Eyes Have It four years ago - her office a card table in her living room and her funding coming from her social work paycheck - and served 900 youngsters in her first year. In the 2004-2005 school year, the agency saw almost 5,700 children and then contacted parents of the 60 percent of youngsters who failed their screenings and needed more extensive exams.

One boy - described by Hobbs as "a sweet quiet young man who was only seeing through shadows" - was discovered to have retinitis pigmentosa, an irreversible condition that eventually leads to blindness. Hobbs was able to educate him and his family about the disease and link him to services that helped prepare him for a future without sight.

"This program is really needed because there's a massive shortage of health care professionals in New Orleans now, and even when we had more, this population would fall through the cracks," says optometrist Eugene Oppman, a volunteer with The Eyes Have It. "[These children] need correction so they can see the board, see their books."

For school nurse Daphne Walker, the most important part of Hobbs's program is that it offers all services on site. "They do the exams and even deliver the glasses to the school so that takes care of children with transportation problems and those whose parents can't take time off work to get them to a doctor," she says.

At the elementary school where Walker works, The Eyes Have It screened more than 300 students this year. Many, says Walker, had "gone years without detecting eye problems."

The vision to make a difference

One of the best testimonials comes directly from one of the students whose life was transformed by the program.

"Being able to see clearly has made a difference and understanding my vision problems has made me feel better and work harder in class," says Jasmine, a high school student with a radiant smile and large, round, wire-rimmed glasses. " Having no insurance and still being able to see the eye doctor at school and pick out the cutest glasses on campus means a lot to me."

Like Jasmine, no youngster is turned away for lack of funds. Still, Hobbs's heart goes out to the children who she knows need help but can't be reached.

"We've gotten calls from kids who say they lost their glasses in the Superdome or broke them when they evacuated and they don't know where to go," she says. "I feel bad because I can't reach them where they are now."

Hobbs doesn't let herself stay down for long, though. She has too many children counting on her and a son's memory to honor. Jonathon Hobbs, the inspiration for the program, died in a collision with a speeding truck two days after he returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He was 22 years old.

"After that, I was going to shut things down. But then I had a dream about him," Hobbs recalls tearfully. "He said to me, ‘you've got to keep going.' And I am - it's what keeps me from thinking about what I've lost."