They came away with little more than pocket change, but the thieves who broke into Michelle Swainston’s car last June robbed of her of something even more precious.
They nabbed her eyeglasses.
“I couldn’t see,” recalled Swainston, who could not afford to replace them. Laid off from her job as an auto-parts inspector, she had recently learned she would not be called back to work.
With her income slashed by more than half, she and her husband had just enough left for the mortgage, car payment and necessities.
Then she learned an area eye practice was offering free eye exams to people hit hardest by tough economic times in Michigan.
She called Advanced Eyecare Professionals and signed up for one of its three annual Community Eyecare Days. An eye exam at the Hastings office revealed Swainston, 49, had glaucoma.
The practice provided corrective laser surgery and what Swainston called “the best pair of eyeglasses I’ve ever owned” at no charge.
“These people are so helpful,” she said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have glasses, and I probably would have lost my eyesight.”
Swainston is one of 300 people who have benefited from Community Eyecare Days. Advanced Eyecare Professionals sets aside three Saturdays per year to offer free eye exams and glasses, one day each at its offices in Hastings, Ionia and Lowell.
They are accepting patients for appointments at their next event, Oct. 10, in Lowell.
The eyecare days have been spearheaded by ophthalmic technician Joy Fountain, 25. Growing up poor meant she and her siblings had to be “very, very sick in order to see a doctor.” Her mother would put her own health issues on the back burner.
Fountain, a straight-A student at Godwin Heights High School, attended Grand Valley State University on a scholarship and says in touch with her mentor through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program.
“This was kind of a personal thing for me,” Fountain said. “I received help through several organizations, and I (wanted) to give back.”
She has had the full backing of Dr. Michael Flohr, owner of the practice. Flohr has made four Lions International Mission Trips to Central America, providing medical care and cataract surgery to people there.
He said he wanted to help people close to home, as well.
“We have always felt we had a commitment to help people in our community,” he wrote in an e-mail. “And with the current economic situation, we felt there was an increased need for help.”
In 2008, the practice gave eye exams to 160 patients ranging in age from 2 to 81 at the community eyecare days.
Of those, 152 needed new glasses. Other medical diagnoses included glaucoma, cataracts, diabetes, retinopathy and macular degeneration.
So far this year, the practice has seen 40 patients at its Ionia community eyecare day and 64 in Hastings. Staff provided more than 100 pairs of glasses and more than $15,000 in services. Others who had recent prescriptions received glasses only.
The practice also offers information on state aid programs, such as Medicaid, and other health plans.
Flohr and other staff volunteer on the Saturdays eyecare clinics are scheduled.
Kelli Worth, who handles marketing and advertising for the practice, said they are happy to do it.
“It really means a lot to everybody who participates,” Worth said.
“They also receive a feeling of doing something for their fellow neighbor.”
Fountain recalls a woman who came in wearing her son’s taped-together glasses. Worse, his glasses were for a nearsighted person, and she was farsighted.
“She couldn’t believe she got new glasses,” Fountain said.
“One person who tells their story and says thanks and is in tears just makes the whole three months of planning worth it,” she added.
Fountain would like to see other practices — particularly dentists — adopt her idea.
“My hope is to take this a little bigger than Advanced Eyecare,” she said.
Worth agreed: “The impact could be huge. There is a lot of dental need out there,” she said.
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