Darnel James ‘23OD is the historian for the University’s National Optometric Student Association (NOSA), and as such, historical perspective is important to him. So when he had the chance to participate in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service Jan. 20 with seven other NOSA students, it made a significant meaning impact to him.
“It meant a lot of things for me,” said James, who shares a fraternity affiliation with Dr. King as both are members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. “I’m from North Carolina and Dr. King is a big deal there. This is not the first time I’ve been a part of MLK Service Day. I love volunteering, so seeing the tradition still lives on meant even more to me.”
James was part of contingent of Salus students who volunteered their time to conduct vision screenings at Girard College in Philadelphia. Fellow students who participated were Sarah Bilal ’23OD; Brandon Garces ‘23OD; Simone Wallace ‘23OD; Sean Lewis ‘23OD; Kierra Washington ‘21OD; Ashley Wright ‘21OD; and Jeredine Kallon ‘22OD; along with faculty advisor Dr. Ruth Shoge, assistant professor in the University’s Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO).
“It’s always important for our students to truly understand the need to serve the community in which they work, and what better way to do it than on MLK Day of Service,” said Dr. Shoge. “Part of the National Optometric Association (NOA) and NOSA’s mission is to serve those who are underrepresented and disadvantaged, so serving in this capacity helps fulfill the organizational mission. Additionally, PCO and Salus have a legacy of participating on this day, and that is an extension of that legacy.”
The experience was a little different for Wallace, who is Canadian and doesn’t celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in her country.
“It was a new experience for me because we really don’t have opportunities like that,” she said. “But it’s nice to know there’s an event which involves giving awareness to a day of service.”
Students checked patients’ visual acuity, eye muscle issues, color vision, and used a direct ophthalmoscope to see the back of the eye during the screenings. Dr. Shoge then determined if patients needed follow-up visits with an optometrist and referred them to The Eye Institute, which is located just north of where the event was held.
“This service helps our students continue to develop their clinical skills as well as the interpersonal skills needed to interact with, and gain the trust of, the community they serve,” said Dr. Shoge.
Lewis also shares a fraternity kinship with another giant in Dr. King’s circle of influence. Both Lewis and Bayard Rustin are members of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. Rustin, who died in 1987 at the age of 75, was a leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence and gay rights. Along with labor unionist and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, he organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963, where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“I’m part of the LBGTQ community like Rustin, and he is an influence for me to go out into underprivileged communities and give back,” said Lewis. “Those aspects are so important. I used to teach, and it’s sad when you find out that a student has gone their entire academic career with a vision problem, and they could have had a completely different experience if they had been screened earlier.”
Lewis added that in his experience, a lot of areas of healthcare have been taken for granted.
“If we had more support for healthcare for people in at-risk communities, then a lot of lives would be changed dramatically,” he said.
Two NOSA students – Bilal and Garces – experienced the MLK Day of Service for the first time, and both came away memorable experiences.
“For me, it meant that there are so many people out there that are unaware of their eye health or don’t know that they need glasses,” said Bilal. “The whole experience of doing service on MLK Day was great because we’re a diverse group and there is a diverse community out there. I’ll do it again.”
“It feels really good to be able to help people, especially the kids,” he said. “It was good to connect with the community and see the smiles on people’s faces. I’d definitely do it again.”
Dr. Shoge, who has been participating in MLK Day of Service for years, reflected back on her own experiences. .
“I’m glad that NOSA has kept up the time-honored tradition of serving in this manner,” she said. “What I observe in my students every year is the reward they get for making themselves available and in seeing those who may not have otherwise received these services get the timely assistance they need.”