Stephen Black always intended to return to his family’s home state of Alabama and find a way to improve life for the state’s poorer residents. He was also determined to accomplish two other goals: inspiring young people to become involved in public service and addressing the health care disparities common in many Alabama communities. Six years ago, Black, a recipient of a 2008 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader (CHL) Award, left the practice of law to make his dream a reality. With the help of a tiny staff and college student volunteers, he created Impact Alabama in 2004, a community service initiative that has now touched the lives of thousands of Alabama residents. By any measure, he has succeeded in achieving his goals and improving the health of Alabama children living in poverty in rural and urban areas.
“I am an attorney,” Black explains, “but I’ve always believed in the importance of trying to make a positive difference if you could. I began teaching social justice and grassroots involvement to students. That’s when I decided that I wanted to create a program that had both service learning and public health components.”
Each year, Impact Alabama trains a small army of college students, teaching them leadership skills and instilling a sense of social responsibility. The students then travel around the state visiting some of Alabama’s poorest communities to help residents address health, literacy and education issues.
Through Impact Alabama’s Focus First initiative, student volunteers conduct free vision screenings (using high-tech optic cameras not used in federal screening programs) for thousands of kids six months to five years old who are enrolled in the state’s Head Start program or day care centers. Children who need treatment receive free care through Sight Savers, a not-for-profit organization of physicians that partners with Focus First. “More than 1,700 college students from 20 colleges and universities have participated in Focus First,” Black said. “Since 2004, these students have screened more than 70,000 children in 67 counties.”
While diseases of the eye are more common in adults, potentially devastating vision problems that may make it difficult for children to read or cause impaired vision or even blindness later in life are often overlooked in this population. “Many of these kids have some type of health insurance coverage, but very few visit pediatricians and even fewer have their vision checked at an early age, “ Black explains, “So their vision problems are almost never diagnosed or treated. We’ve found that approximately 11.7 percent of the children we see need treatment for a specific condition or glasses.”
Focus First volunteers coax toddlers into sitting still for a quick, painless photo of the eye than can reveal hyperopia, myopia, amblyopia, astigmatism or more serious conditions. “Last fall,” Black recalls, “a volunteer tested the eyes of a 2-year-old boy at a day care center in a little town called Pritchard, Ala., just outside of Mobile. The test revealed that the boy had a rare, undiagnosed condition called Coats Disease.” If left untreated, Coats can lead to blindness, but the condition is rarely caught early because it begins to damage the eye at about one year of age—long before a child can recognize and report a symptom. “In this case, our physician volunteers referred the child to St. Judes where he received treatment that most likely prevented him from going blind in the affected eye,” Black said.
In addition to potentially changing the lives of the thousands of toddlers screened each year, Focus First staff and student volunteers often find themselves pursing new paths as well. “Interacting with kids and seeing the tremendous health needs in Alabama definitely affected my decision to become a physician,” said David Rooney, 24, a Focus First volunteer with a B.A. in history who had originally intended to become an attorney. “I am now completing the additional academic work I need to do and I’ll hopefully enter medical school next year,” Rooney said. Through Focus First, Rooney began to understand the importance of preventive health care. “When we would return to day care centers after getting treatment or glasses for kids, we could see the difference. Teachers would tell us how much better the kids were doing academically. It helped me tremendously to see the need among these kids. I feel very strongly called to medicine and I intend to specialize in pediatrics,” Rooney said.
Community Health Leader award recipients, like Black, are individuals who have overcome daunting odds to improve the health and quality of life for disadvantaged or underserved men, women and children across the United States. Awardees are able to expand the reach of their community service work because of the grants received through the program. The 10 2009 recipients of the CHL award were announced on October 9. To learn more about Impact Alabama and Focus First or to volunteer, go to www.impactalabama.org.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders is a national award program that is in its 16th year. Today, there are 173 outstanding Community Health Leaders in nearly all states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.