Stacia Hernstrom 2016-01-19 14:21:33
With help from clubs in Hawaii and Texas, Lion Chelsea Elliott, 25, has screened 10,000 children for eye disorders in just two years through her nonprofit Half-Helen. A 7-year-old named Hector stands on the purple stripe of the rainbow rug in his second-grade classroom in Austin, Texas. He grins, two teeth missing, as 25-year-old Chelsea Elliott tells him she’s about to take his picture. She clicks a button, and he looks into the camera’s laser-like swirl of red, green and blue lights. “Cool!” he says. “It’s like a video game!” In two seconds, it’s done, and Hector is back to circle time. But in those two seconds, Elliott has captured a detailed picture of Hector’s eyes and screened him for six common eye disorders. The data is the result of a Spot Vision Screener, which looks like a hybrid of an iPad and a Polaroid camera. In Hector’s case, the camera identifies astigmatism and nearsightedness. Over the next two weeks, a mobile vision clinic will come to his elementary school, where a pediatric optometrist will give him a complete eye exam and fit him for his first pair of glasses. All for free. If she’d had access to the same kind of technology and screenings when she was a child, Elliott likely wouldn’t be blind in one eye and deaf in one ear herself. That realization drove Elliott to start the Half-Helen Foundation when she graduated from college in 2012. Named for what she began calling herself after studying Helen Keller in fourth grade—“Helen Keller was completely blind and deaf,” she told her family, “and I’m half that. I’m Half Helen!”—the organization has provided high-tech vision screenings and follow-up eye care for more than 15,000 students in just two years. A Crusader is Born “Chelsea really believes in what Helen Keller said about joining ‘the crusade against darkness’ at the Lions Club international convention 90 years ago,” says her mother, Lion Teresa Elliott. “She lives at home with us and makes almost nothing—she's willing to give up her independence to do the work she cares about.” “I don’t remember what it’s like to see with both of my eyes and hear with both of my ears,” says Elliott, a finalist for the 2015 CNN Heroes program. “But other kids don’t have to go through what my family and I did. We have the technology now to identify potentially serious problems like mine.” With a network of supporters and volunteers at Lions clubs in Texas and Hawaii, that's exactly what Elliott is doing. The support started long before she founded Half-Helen. After Elliott failed a preschool vision screening, Teresa sought the advice of an optometrist she knew through the Austin West Austin Lions Club, which she and her husband had joined after they moved to Texas in the 1980s. He discovered the blindness in Elliott’s left eye, ruled out cancer and guided the family through consultations with six doctors until they got a diagnosis: Coats’ Disease, which causes the blood vessels in the back of the eye to leak until the retina eventually detaches. A year later, they learned Elliott was also deaf in one ear. “We could have shut down. It was devastating, on top of everything else we’d been dealing with,” says Teresa. “But I remember holding her and thinking that, somehow, something good had to come from this.” Slowly, they coped and adapted. Elliott figured out where to sit at school so she could hear the teacher and see the chalkboard. She learned to play volleyball and basketball with just a 90-degree field of vision. And she met other children with disabilities through the Texas Lions Camp, which she started going to each summer when she was 7. The camp was a “utopia” for Elliott, remembers Teresa. “Even though every child had something ‘wrong’ with them, it didn't matter. Camp week was an escape from the reality they faced every other week in the year.” When she was 16, Elliott became a camp counselor. (She now serves on its board.) And when she graduated from high school, she became a Lion herself, joining the West Austin club. “The Lions club has been part of Chelsea’s life since she was born,” says Teresa. “When Chelsea’s blindness was diagnosed, we realized we had made connections and relationships that became such a strong support system at a time when we really needed it.” Two decades after Elliott's diagnosis, Lion Doris Treadwell (whose late husband Morris had discovered Elliott's unilateral blindness) told her about the Spot camera at a West Austin club meeting. Elliott researched it online, called the company to learn more about it and made a presentation to the Austin West club, whose members voted to purchase the $8,000 camera for Half-Helen. Then with additional donations she also purchased two audiometers to conduct traditional hearing screenings when needed at schools. “That purpose I had been waiting for her to find for 20 years,” remembers Teresa, “was finally happening!” Spot On With the technology all lined up, Elliott hit a roadblock. Texas had not yet approved the Spot camera for use in public schools. While she screened children in local charter schools and waited for a state policy change, she began researching other communities across the country with children in need of screenings. She landed in Hawaii. Hawaii had discontinued mandatory school vision and hearing tests in 1995 because of budget shortages. The state also ranked below the national average on most Department of Education assessment metrics, statistics that can sometimes reflect students’ inability to see or hear test instructions and questions. Elliott began emailing Lions clubs and schools on the state’s eight main islands about the possibility of conducting Half-Helen screenings there. She made contact with the six clubs in Maui and flew out to make a pitch for a program called Maui 528, named for the number of hours it would take to screen each of the island's 21,119 students. She and Jackie Yamamoto, president of the Maui club, presented the idea to Mayor Alan Arakawa and screened children in his office so he could see the Spot camera at work. With his endorsement, Elliott, Yamamoto and the other Maui club presidents launched Maui 528 in June 2013. Later that year, Elliott began commuting between Hawaii and Texas. In the two years since, she and the Maui Lions clubs have screened children at 25 local schools. “Maui needed Chelsea’s help,” says Yamamoto, who is also a Half-Helen board member. “I was there to see one of the first children we screened get her glasses, and I continue to feel Chelsea’s enthusiasm. Her story has inspired us as Lions to do even more for the children in our community.” And Elliott’s sights are “absolutely” set on expansion. Besides Hawaii, seven states still do not require vision screenings (and no state completes them with Spot camera technology). Just as she did in Maui, Elliott is likely to find a built-in support system and network of volunteers at any of the 46,000 Lions clubs across the globe. Living with blindness and deafness, even partial, has given her something people with intact senses often lack—perspective, ironically. “Vision screenings aren’t sexy or edgy,” says Elliott. “People think, ‘Oh, you can’t see? Well, get a pair of glasses.’ But it’s much more than that. We can prevent so many things, and what we can’t prevent, we can catch early and treat. It’s high-impact and low-cost.” “Everything she’s been through has motivated her and given her the strength to get on a plane, go to a strange place and talk to people she doesn’t know day in and day out,” says Teresa. “My strong, creative girl who was always the center of attention when she was four has finally fought her way back.” Stacia Hernstrom writes, blogs and trampolines in Austin, Texas. She's pretty sure queso is the cure for writer’s block.
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