Like a lot of other people, Winda and Tim Perdue ran into rough times when the economy faltered a few years ago. They lost their home and their handyman company, and since then have been getting by on odd jobs and living with relatives.
Both of them have also had serious vision problems, and for a while they coped as best they could. Winda, 50, would wear two old pairs of glasses at once, one on top of the other. Her vision was so bad that she was unable to drive at night. Tim made do with inexpensive reading glasses, though what he really needed was a prescription pair.
About a year ago, the Douglasville couple were referred to Georgia Lions Lighthouse Foundation, a Chamblee-based nonprofit organization that helps uninsured, low-income Georgians get new glasses at a very low price.
“I was really desperate,’’ says Winda Perdue. After waiting for a few months, she was able to get an eye exam and new bifocals through Lighthouse, paying only $30 for the glasses. “It made a 150 percent difference,’’ she says. Tim, too, got an exam and glasses, with a co-pay of just $6.
The Lighthouse staff “really went above and beyond,’’ she says. “I can’t praise them enough.’’
Georgia Lions Lighthouse Foundation has been helping Georgians with vision problems for more than 60 years. Founded by the Lions Club, which still provides roughly 15 percent of its funding, Lighthouse also helps arrange eye surgery for more than 300 people a year, and connects Georgians with providers of hearing aids.
Demand for Lighthouse services has increased as the economic slump has persisted.
Not just ‘minor’ impairments
Nearly one-fifth of all Georgians live in poverty, and a similar number have no health insurance. For many poor adults, regular medical care can be difficult to afford, and eyeglasses and hearing aids can seem almost like luxuries.
But uncorrected vision and hearing problems are real health issues. They can limit a person’s employability and safety, not to mention quality of life.
“There’s a great need,’’ says Sarah Gardner, partnership director for the Georgia Lions Lighthouse Foundation. “If we advertise our services, we can’t keep up with the demand.’’
Overall, about 7,000 people get help through Lighthouse now each year, up from fewer than 1,000 in 2006.
In Athens, there’s a waiting list of 200 patients, she says.
Lighthouse holds four vision clinics a month at its Chamblee location, and aims to double that number in the next year. Meanwhile, two Lighthouse mobile vans with optical equipment travel to 25 charitable clinics across the state. Optometrists and ophthalmologists donate their time to examine the patients.
The Chamblee staff makes up to 500 pairs of glasses a month, and thousands of new frames and lenses are donated every year.
Co-pays for glasses range from $3 to $30, depending on a person’s income.
And if eye surgery is needed, Lighthouse lines up a physician to do it. More than 350 people a year receive surgery for cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and other problems.
Helene Thompkins, 57, of Lithonia developed serious trouble with her vision four years ago. She had been unemployed since 1999, and without health insurance. Thompkins cares for two special-needs children, and her husband is disabled.
“I couldn’t even read my mail,’’ she says. “I couldn’t hardly see how to drive.’’
Her poor vision even interfered with something as simple as taking medicine. Sometimes she would find herself holding a vial right up to her face, straining to read the important information on the label.
Lighthouse eventually linked Thompkins up with an eye surgeon, who removed a cataract. Another cataract was removed from her other eye this year.
“I paid $100 at the end of everything,’’ she says. “I feel so indebted to them. I can never repay them.’’
A wide-ranging effort
In Atlanta, Lighthouse works with Grady Memorial Hospital’s eye clinic to provide glasses to people who might otherwise do without them.
The nonprofit holds vision and hearing screenings at festivals and schools. People with diabetes receive follow-up care.
Partnering with hearing aid providers, Lighthouse serves more than 1,000 people a year with at least one hearing aid, with a co-pay of $60 to $200, based on income, much less than a retail price.
Across the state, a number of charitable clinics get regular visits from a Lighthouse van.
Nancy Stanley, executive director of the Mercy Medical Clinic in Vidalia, says a Lighthouse van comes to her facility in the South Georgia onion capital every two months. People sign up for the service, and the clinic finds eye professionals who volunteer to examine patients.
With their other needs seeming more urgent, many poor patients ‘‘don’t even consider getting glasses,’’ Stanley says. But she adds, “You can’t get a job if you can’t read the application.’’
“We fill up our eye clinic every time,’’ she says.