Barb Roy of Ferndale wears glasses but hadn’t had an eye exam in six or seven years. She found herself moving printed material closer to her face when she read, so she figured it was time to have her eyes checked again.
But there was a problem. Money.
Roy, 57, has medical insurance, but it doesn’t cover eye exams. And she’s on disability and can’t work because she’s dealing with breast cancer, so her finances are tight.
Looking for help, she scanned the Internet and came across the Frank Haskell Lions Eye Clinic. The Bellingham clinic provides free exams and glasses — both lenses and frames — to low-income people in Whatcom County.
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The clinic opened in January 2012. On Thursday, Feb. 18, Roy became the clinic’s 1,000th patient when she sat down to have her eyes examined by optometrist Darlene Anker. Roy will pick up her new, free glasses in two weeks.
It’s a big joint effort between a lot of volunteers.
Justin Reeves, eye clinic coordinator
“I’d never been here before,” Roy said after her visit to the clinic, which is housed in the Lighthouse Mission’s drop-in center at 1013 W. Holly St. “It’s really nice they have it.”
Origins of clinic
The idea of an eye clinic came into focus in early 2011 when Bellingham Central Lions Club was asked to help at a one-day social service fair that spring. Member Ron Dickerson said the club wasn’t able to participate, but he and Ron Buchinski, executive director of Lighthouse Mission Ministries, began talking about creating an eye clinic.
The mission remodeled part of the upper-floor space at the rear of the drop-in center, next to where Sea Mar Community Health Center already provided medical checkups for needy people.
The clinic committee included three Lions Club members who were active or retired optometrists: Brian Koning, Denis Holmes and Ken Henderson. Koning had earlier helped start a charity eye clinic in Olympia. That clinic, like the one in Bellingham, had major support from a mission, Lions club members, and optometrists who donate their time.
Anker is one of four optometrists currently volunteering on a regular basis. The others are Brian Koning, Mira Swiecicki, and Brad Bearden. Opticians currently volunteering on a regular basis are Chrissy Friberg, Jackie Kersten, Karen McGaa and Hannah Johnson.
The Bellingham clinic was readied with donated equipment, a $30,000 grant from Chuckanut Health Foundation, formerly called St. Luke’s Foundation, and a $3,000 grant from a Frank Haskell memorial fund. The clinic is named after Haskell, a Bellingham businessman who was a founding member of the club. He died in 1982.
If you wear glasses, take them off for an hour and you can see what these people have dealt with for years.
Ron Dickerson, clinic organizer, volunteer
Lighthouse Mission provides the space, utilities and staff support. Optometrists and opticians donate their time and eyeglass frames. Lions Club members staff the front desk, and the club donates several thousand dollars a year to the mission for its support. Students in the pre-optometry club at Western Washington University sort glasses, assist patients and help at the front desk.
“It’s a big joint effort between a lot of volunteers,” said Justin Reeves, clinic coordinator.
In addition, Walman Optical, in Seattle, grinds the lenses at no charge, and has done so from the get-go.
“We saw it as a good opportunity to help out,” said Elaine Davis, office supervisor. “It was our way of helping them help others.”
Patients at the clinic don’t have to be homeless clients of the mission, but they must apply for help and be screened for income eligibility.
Before the Affordable Care Act expanded health insurance coverage in Washington, many people who came to the eye clinic had no insurance at all, Reeves said. Now, more patients have insurance, but their coverage often doesn’t pay for lenses and frames.
About one in four patients have never had glasses before, he said. The others often haven’t had their eyes checked in a long time, or get by with dollar-store reading glasses.
Some patients need help filling out their application because their vision is so poor. Having bad glasses, or no glasses at all, can make it difficult for people to read, apply for jobs, and cope with day-to-day life.
“For a lot of laborers, anyone trying to work, it helps to be able to see,” Reeves said.
The eye exams also are important for the patients’ general health. Along with such eye-related problems as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration, the exams can alert the patient about such potential problems as diabetes and high blood pressure.
“It’s a health screening check,” said Henderson, who retired from optometry but still volunteers at the clinic.
For most patients, it’s mostly a matter of being able to see better. Sometimes a lot better.
“If you wear glasses, take them off for an hour and you can see what these people have dealt with for years,” Dickerson said.
Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291
The clinic is open by appointment from 1:30 to 4 p.m. most Thursdays at the mission’s drop-in center, 1013 W. Holly St.
People can donate used glasses, which are sent to needy people in Central America. Take the glasses to drop-off boxes at local businesses and eye clincs, or to the Lighthouse Mission drop-in center, 1013 W. Holly St..
To donate money to the eye clinic, make a check out to “Bellingham Central Lions Club,” note that the check is for the clinic, and mail it to the club at P.O. Box 602, Bellingham, WA 98227. People will soon be able to donate online at the clinic website.
People interested in volunteering their time at the clinic should contact David Goss at 360-303-7923.