Giving the gift of vision

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Rumors that Santa had entered the building circulated last week through Cathedral School.

Don Johnson, a member of the Superior Evening Lions Club, was there to help with vision screening, but his white beard and red hat kept students guessing.

"The kids want to know if that's your list of good and bad," said first grade teacher Brenda Blomfelt, pointing to the list of names Johnson was checking off.

Beside him, fellow Lions Club member Valerie Sweeney pointed a SPOT vision screening camera at each child. Within seconds, the camera analyzed the student's vision and indicated if any problems were detected.

"It's amazing," said Sweeney, an optician at the Superior Walmart. "Ours isn't as up-to-date as this."

About the size of a Polaroid camera, the $7,000 machine can detect a host of eye problems, including nearsightedness, farsightedness, unequal refractive power, blurred vision due to eye structure problems, pupil size deviations and eye misalignment. About 10 percent of the children screened are referred for further diagnosis.

"It's a means of referring them to an optometrist," said Johnson, the club's secretary and treasurer. "We're not replacing an optometrist."

This is the first year Superior members have offered the free screening. The Brule River Lions Club has been providing the service to the Maple School District since Lions Clubs International's Northern Wisconsin District purchased cameras three years ago.

"I've never been so enthused as a Lion since we got that machine," said Brule River Lions Club member Jim Tollas.

The screening tool has increased the service organization's visibility and helped them meet the challenge Helen Keller issued to Lions Club members in 1925 to be "Knights of the Blind."

"The important thing is to catch vision problems as early as you can," Tollas said.

Earlier this month, 497 students at Northwestern elementary, middle and high schools were screened — all elementary students except third graders, who were in the midst of testing, as well as seventh and ninth grade students.

"We take it on our own to do older kids," Tollas said.

Of the 110 they saw at the high school this year, seven were referred, including five who were nearsighted.

Last year, they tested 535.

The Iron River chapter screens students at Iron River Elementary School each year. Members of the Solon Springs Lions Club test children in the Solon Springs School District.

"They have been hugely instrumental in helping us with our job as nurses," said Lisa Burkhart, district nurse with the Maple School District.

School nurses only have paper charts to use for vision screening, while the SPOT camera checks for numerous problems in a fraction of the time.

"It captures things we couldn't," Burkhart said, and has increased the number of vision-related referrals through the district by about 25 percent.

Lions Club members have also made some young friends.

"The kids love seeing them," Burkhart said. "They work very well with the kids."

If a problem is detected, the school nurse sends a letter to the parents.

"We don't keep a record of anything," Tollas said.

But they do provide funding for glasses and optical appointments to families in need.

"They partner with these families," Burkhart said.

In their inaugural year, the Superior club has visited a number of area child care centers, as well as Cathedral School and Maranatha Academy.

"I think it's fantastic," Johnson said.

The district has two SPOT cameras, which can be used on children as young as 6 months old. They are available for use by Lions Club members who have been trained on the screening device. In recognition of the service organization's 100th anniversary, Tollas said, they aim to screen 100,000 children in the state of Wisconsin this year.

"It'll happen, I think," he said, especially if word gets around that the free testing is available.

For more information or to set up a screening in your area, contact the local Lions Club. In Superior, contact Johnson at (715) 392-1357.