Tackling VISION CARE Disparities

Article excerpt

How one nonprofit uses an NFL team's celebrity to improve poor children's eyesight and life chances

How can nonprofits leverage sports celebrity to reach underserved populations?

How do they skillfully manage complex partnerships between nonprofit, for-profit, and government organizations?

WHEN NFL OFFENSIVE LINEman Jermane Mayberry was 16 years old, he was diagnosed with amblyopia, or "lazy eye," and was pronounced legally blind in his left eye.

"I thought everyone saw the way I did," he recalls, noting that no one else in his rural Texas hometown had noticed his eye problem, either. "But when I got into high school, I was having trouble seeing out of my good eye, because the strain of overcompensating had finally caught up with me." Mayberry later learned that, had his eyes been checked when he was a child, his amblyopia could have been easily corrected by wearing an eye patch.

Despite his impaired vision, Mayberry was the Philadelphia Eagles' No. 1 draft pick in 1996, when he was 22 years old. "Before the draft, I told my agent that wherever I go, I would like to give something back to the community," he says. And so during his first season with the Eagles, Mayberry linked up with Eagles Youth Partnership - an independent nonprofit organization, affiliated with the football team, that delivers health and education services to children living in poverty - and hatched a plan to bring eye care to the underserved children of Philadelphia.

Within a few months, and with Mayberry's initial contribution of $50,000, Eagles Youth Partnership launched the Eagles Eye Mobile, its first direct service program. The mobile program takes its services directly to children who would otherwise not get vision care. It is one of only two mobile pediatric vision care units in the country, and the only one that is affiliated with a sports team.

When the mobile visits a school, it provides students who have failed Pennsylvania's mandatory vision screening with a free eye exam and, if needed, referrals for further medical treatment. Later, mobile staff and partners deliver the children's prescription glasses, as well as take children with referrals to their follow-up appointments - all free of charge.

In the past nine years, the Eagles Eye Mobile program has served more than 13,000 public school children in Philadelphia, and has been on the road 130-150 days a year. With this experience, the mobile's staff has learned not only how to use the fame of the Philadelphia Eagles for social change, but also how to manage sometimestricky partnerships with local nonprofit, private, and governmental organizations.

A Blind Spot in Healthcare

National studies show that over 21 percent of children ages 6-17 have trouble seeing.1 Philadelphia shows similar trends: More than 14,000 of the school district's 200,000 children failed their mandatory vision screening in 20012002.

Yet only 5,000 of these Philadelphia schoolchildren received glasses or treatment.2 Many of the remaining 9,000 children come from poor families, whose lack of money, transportation, organization, and knowledge means that their eye problems are likely to remain untreated.

"And when children can't see," points out Mayberry, "they have no chance. They can't learn. They can't succeed."

The Eagles Eye Mobile targets children living in poverty, serving schools where more than 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch (that is, their families are at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level - income of about $ 19,000 for a family of four in Philadelphia). By giving these underserved children free vision care, the mobile aims to improve not only their eyesight, but also their chances for academic achievement.

Using Fame to Reach the Forgotten

The mobile draws on the Philadelphia Eagles' popularity to make children feel welcome, comfortable, and eager to have their eyes examined. …