Craig Brandhorst 2017-07-19 15:57:36
A CLUB’S EYE CLINIC, FORTUITOUSLY ESTABLISHED AT ITS CLUBHOUSE, RECEIVES RAVE REVIEWS FROM ITS SMALL-TOWN PATRONS IN SOUTH CAROLINA. Ask David Holmes whose idea it was to start an eye clinic right inside their clubhouse, and he’ll credit his wife, Karen. Ask Karen, and she’ll give the credit right back to David. Ask any of the other members of the Slater-Marietta Lions Club, and they’ll point to both—and then point to a dozen other volunteers. But no one points to themselves. In Slater-Marietta— two adjoining villages with a combined population of fewer than 2,000 in rural Greenville County, South Carolina—that’s just not how things are done. Folks here are more concerned about fellowship, modesty and improving their community from the inside out. They’re also concerned about the economy, which has suffered with the demise of the textile industry, and about their neighbors, who have felt that demise in the pocketbook. Unlike other mill communities in northwest South Carolina, Slater never lost its mill. But the fiberglass manufacturing plant that once employed upward of 1,500 people saw its workforce dwindle to just 103 by 2016. The plant, which nearly closed altogether last fall, was recently purchased by a company in North Carolina that will employ just 46. “This is a depressed area,” says David, the club’s secretary-treasurer for the past three years. “Incomes aren’t that great overall. Our schools get federal and state assistance for that reason. We’re a small club in a small community, and we don’t have a lot of deep pockets.” Vision screenings held by the club were not well attended. Even personal outreach fell short. Many residents don’t even have adequate transportation. “We’d make them appointments in Traveler’s Rest [a town], which is just six miles up the road, but they wouldn’t have a ride there,” says Karen, a past president who presides over each clinic. “That, or they just wouldn’t go that far. So eventually we started thinking, ‘Well, why don’t we just do it right here?’” Fortuitously, Karen heard about Bud Antley, an optometrist who owned some surplus equipment down in Columbia. The Slater-Marietta Lions Club had two optometrists as members— Dr. Tom Tucker and Dr. John Voss—so why not see if Antley could help them out? “We called Dr. Antley and said, ‘Can we come get some of that stuff?’ and he said, ‘Sure!’” Tucker explains. “So we drove down, opened his garage and pieced together what we needed.” Thanks to Antley, the club was in business. From him they received a slit lamp biomicroscope, a phoropter, a tonometer, a chair and even eye charts. The value of the donated equipment was $15,000. Members pitched in to wall off the back corner of the clubhouse, and Tucker and Voss set up the equipment. Later, to purchase a newer slit lamp and tonometer, they organized fundraisers like a rodeo and the Slater-Marietta Moon Boom fireworks display, which recognizes Slater Mill’s contribution to the Space Race (materials manufactured in the plant were incorporated into spacesuits for the Apollo 11 moon mission). When the club held their first clinic, two years later, they relied exclusively on word of mouth. Churches referred congregants. Schools referred students. Slater Drug referred customers. Now, the clinics help as many as 20 people per quarterly session. “They all know what we do. We don’t advertise or put up a sign,” David explains as the first patient walks through the door on a cool Saturday morning not long ago. “If people need help and somebody around here knows it, they’ll find out.” Chartered in 1951, the Slater-Marietta Lions Club has 28 members. A printer, David Holmes, 56, joined in 2004 after he printed a program for the club and members invited him to an event. Karen, 56, works at a pharmacy and joined two years later. She sees her membership as “extension of my faith and commitment to helping others.” ‘Like from a Movie’ Sarah Reyes moved to Marietta from New Jersey in 2014 to help care for a sick grandfather. After he passed, she stayed on, having fallen in love with the area, which she fondly describes as “nice and quiet, peaceful.” And it is. Country roads wend and wind through the surrounding foothills toward the Smoky Mountains in the north, and going south toward Greenville, the roads don’t get congested until you’re past the slightly larger town of Traveler’s Rest, six miles away. “It’s not like being in the city where it’s all loud and crowded,” says Reyes, 38. “This is a community. You always find good people here.” But that doesn’t mean life has been easy for the mother of five. Her oldest son recently moved to Puerto Rico to stay with her brother, but her other four children, who range in age from five to 14, still live under her roof, and finding steady employment has been difficult. Her husband receives disability through the federal Supplemental Security Income program. “I’d always seen this building. But I didn’t know what went on in here or what they did, and now, here I am. It’s a shocker!” “It’s hard,” she says. “$735 a month does not go far when you have rent, lights, water. And I got my children, plus four dogs and two cats.” And those dogs and cats are important. That’s not just because Reyes gets such delight from them, though judging by the way her eyes light up when she talks about them, she clearly does. Her pets are also her motivation as she works toward her GED through the Center for Working Families program at Foothills Family Resources in Slater. “It’s a dream of mine to start a business making pet treats—chicken jerky, doggie birthday cakes, doggie treats. I make everything all natural. If I wouldn’t eat it, I won’t feed it,” she says. “I also sew clothes for dogs. They look so cute.” Reyes thinks about her dream business all the time and even has a name in mind—Zoe-Cloe Treats, in honor of two pets who died. Unfortunately, degenerating eyesight has made furthering her education difficult. She has worn glasses since she was 10, but for the past seven years she’s had to get by on a pair of inexpensive readers from a drugstore. And they’re not doing the trick. As she explains to Tucker, she failed her last GED prep test because she couldn’t see the board. At home, she has trouble reading recipes for her dog treats. Sewing has become nearly impossible. “I actually stopped doing needlework,” she says. “I like to knit, and I like to crochet. But when you can’t see what you’re doing you’re constantly poking yourself. And then the stitches are small. I’m constantly having to undo my work, so I just put it to the side for now.” But not for long. In a scene that Reyes will giddily describe afterward as “something like from in a movie,” Tucker adjusts the strength of her prescription, and she audibly gasps. Before he can even ask her to read the eye chart, she is shouting loud enough to be heard in the next room—“Oh, my gosh, I can see!” Tucker laughs with her and writes a prescription for bifocals. He sends her to Chip Robertson, a volunteer lens maker who helps her try on frames. As she wonders aloud which ones she can choose—“Can I still get pretty ones with bifocals?”—Robertson assures she can. She settles on the purple ones, her favorite color. “This is a huge godsend,” she says, still batting her eyes from the drops Tucker put in before her glaucoma test. “When you’re trying to keep everyone in your house happy, you kind of slack off on yourself. So this really worked for me. They’re should be more people like the Lions club. They’re just awesome.” Shocker in Slater! As Reyes is leaving, accompanied by the volunteer who will drive her home, Lion Theresa Dewease is helping Gene Tolley fill out paperwork. A retired car salesman, Tolley learned he needed a new prescription when he tried to renew his driver’s license. He was referred to the Lions by a friend in Marietta. “I want to say it’s been seven or eight years since my last pair. I kept them longer than I ever kept them,” he says. “The left eye’s always been bad, but they’re both just getting weaker and weaker.” Like Reyes, he put off getting a new prescription because finances are tight, and not just because he’s on a fixed income. Three years ago, he fell off a ladder while working on his daughter’s house and broke 10 ribs. Despite not having health insurance, he managed to pay off those bills, but he’s since had two strokes and more recently had open heart surgery. Tolley grew up nearby. “My mother was from Slater,” he says, “so I used to take her to work and I’d drive by this place probably five days a week.” But until his recent vision troubles, he really didn’t know what the club was all about. “I’d seen the Lions club on TV or something maybe, and I’d always seen this building. But I didn’t know what went on in here or what they did,” he says with a quiet chuckle. “And now, here I am. It’s a shocker!” Asked what he means, he nods at the dozen or so volunteers and patients chatting at the check-in table, around the fitting station in the doorway to the exam room. “All this,” he says. “I had no idea this was even going on. I thought there’d be two people in here, and that’d be it. But this is amazing. These people are amazing.” A Family Affair Five of the people in the room as Tolley is wrapping up his visit hail from the same family. There’s longtime Lion Joe Dill; Joe’s son, Joel Dill; daughter Kim Wald; Kim’s husband, Charlie Wald; and, most importantly, Joe’s great-granddaughter, Kylii O’Sullivan. A first-grader, Kylii’s only real concern this morning is making sure she gets pink frames. Today is Kylii’s firstever eye exam, and three generations are along for the ride— but it’s no ordinary checkup. “We noticed her squinting when she was reading and watching TV, and then we had a note from school,” says Kim, Kylii’s grandmother. To demonstrate how bad her vision is, Kylii’s grandfather, Charlie, holds his hand near his own face. Gesturing, he says, “Cell phones are like this. Way up close.” Turns out it’s a good thing they brought in their granddaughter. Kylii’s not just myopic but amblyopic, Tucker explains. In Kylii’s case, he doesn’t think she needs to wear a patch to correct the lazy eye, but a strong prescription is in order. “If she were 15 it would be different; it might not come back,” Tucker tells Kylii’s family. “At her age, if she wears her glasses, I’m not too worried about it. But I want her to wear her glasses all the time for six months.” Then Tucker leans down to talk to Kylii, eye to eye. “When you sleep, you can take ’em off. When you take a bath, you can take ’em off. Otherwise,” he tells her, “I want you to wear your glasses all the time, OK? OK. Good girl.” Kylii is excited enough by the prospect of pink frames, that it doesn’t seem like wearing them will be an issue. She even says the checkup was fun. Still, Tucker does advise her grandparents to keep an eye on his newest patient. “It’s such a strong prescription, it may make her dizzy some for a couple weeks,” he says. If she complains or seems disoriented, they should bring her to his office in Greenville. Hard Work, Good Fortune “You have to understand, her family is in a rough place,” says Joe Dill. “There are some financial hardships, definitely.” But Dill didn’t just come because of his great-granddaughter. In the three years since his club started offering quarterly clinics he’s been to all but a couple. He really enjoys volunteering at the clinic. “It’s really something else to see all these people come in,” he says. “We’ve found people with cataracts who didn’t even know they had the cataract, and we’ve found other problems. These people who donate their time—you just can’t say enough about them.” Dill praises Tucker and Voss, specifically. He brings up the fundraisers and hard work. He also brings up good fortune. “It’s unreal,” he says. “When we started this thing, Karen found this doctor online that was wanting to give this stuff to someone. We thought, ‘Well, that’s gonna be a job.’ But it just took care of itself. We call it a God thing.” To underscore his point, he gestures at Dewease helping another patient fill out a form, then over to Robertson tightening another pair of frames, then toward Tucker, outside the exam room. “I mean, this is almost the whole process right here in the Lions club, and you get the same exact treatment you’d get if you went to the doctor’s office,” Dill says. “But this way is a lot better because we get to meet the people. We get to talk to the people. We’re able to let them know we’re here to help.”
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