UM students assist FocusFirst

Published 2:57 pm Wednesday, September 21, 2011

From left: University of Montevallo student Julie Martin, UM's Ahna Payne, FocusFirst's Sanda Sengupta, UM's Katy Harper, UM's Kelli Bennitt and UM's Daphne Thornthwaite pose for a group photo Sept. 21 at Calera Head Start. (Reporter photo/Brad Gaskins)

By BRAD GASKINS / Staff Writer

CALERA – Five University of Montevallo students got some hands-on experience in their future professions Sept. 21 by helping a non-profit group conduct high-tech eye exams for kids.

The students, all elementary education or family and consumer science majors, assisted FocusFirst – a student service initiative and signature project of Impact Alabama – at Calera Head Start.

For the advanced photo screenings to work, children had to sit in a dark room for several minutes until their pupils dilated. Montevallo students cared for the children as they waited in the dark for a FocusFirst staff member, Sonda Sengupta, to conduct the exams.

“We’re just trying to keep them calm,” Montevallo student Kelli Bennitt said. “It’s kind of an awkward environment for them to be in, but it’s not as evasive as having eye drops put in your eyes.”

Also assisting from Montevallo were students Katy Harper, Ahna Payne, Julie Martin and Daphne Thornthwaite.

More than 2,100 students from 23 Alabama colleges, universities and high schools have assisted with the service-learning project since FocusFirst began in 2004. More than 120,000 underprivileged children living in urban and rural poverty have received free screenings.

“Children at this age, in this type of economy, are not getting the eye care screening that they need,” Bennitt said. “If they can get corrective lenses now, they have a much better chance of being able to read, write and understand in the future.”

Screenings were also scheduled Sept. 21 at Montevallo Head Start, Vincent Head Start, Alabaster Head Start and Gospel Light Baptist Academy.

Potential problems have been detected in about 11 percent of children screened throughout the state in the last seven years, according to FocusFirst. Children with sight problems receive fully subsidized follow-up care through Sight Savers America.

“We desperately need young people’s energies, perspectives and talents to make our communities and institutions work well,” FocusFirst founder and president Stephen Black said.

Black, a professor and attorney, developed the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at the University of Alabama.

“I see the college years as an incredible opportunity to engage students in addressing human and community needs through structured service opportunities, while providing them with a sense of their ability as well as responsibility to affect structural change,” he said.