Always Looking Out for Kids: Charity Fundraiser Has Grown and Evolved Over the Years
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Always Looking Out for Kids: Charity Fundraiser Has Grown and Evolved Over the Years

Thomas Falkowski, MBA, remembered the day Susan “Dr. O” Oleszewski, OD ‘76, Resident ‘78, FAAO, walked into his office in 2006 at The Eye Institute (TEI) with an idea. 

At the time, he was associate director and she was vice president and executive director of Patient Care Services. Dr. O shared with Falkowski she had met a guy in her neighborhood who happened to be the business manager for L.J. Smith, a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles.

LJ Smith reading to childrenSmith had experienced undiagnosed tracking and teaming issues with his vision throughout his early childhood, which negatively impacted his academic performance. It wasn’t until he was in college that the issue was diagnosed and addressed through vision therapy. Due to his personal experience, Smith was interested in forming a charitable organization to help young people with eye issues.

The Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) and its clinical facility, The Eye Institute (TEI), have a long history of providing comprehensive vision care services to underserved children and their families. Part of Dr. O’s job at the time was to raise the funds to provide this important public health service, specifically for children in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). 

The wheels were turning in Dr. O’s head. Could TEI’s partnership with Philadelphia schools and L.J. Smith’s desire to do vision care charitable work be combined?

“What do you think we can do?” Dr. O asked Falkowski.

And, that was the spark that became, what is now, Salus University’s Looking Out for Kids (LOFK) charity fundraiser.

Formulating a Plan

The two decided to form an ad-hoc committee which included Cathie Muhr, an optometric technician at TEI since 1981; Richard Echevarria, FMP, current associate vice president of Facilities and Institutional Services at Salus; and a few others.

“We had no budget, so we had to figure out how we could maximize the amount of money we raised to support the school district program with minimal costs,” said Falkowski, who is now director of operations at Nemours Delaware Valley Primary Care.

LOFK auction itemsSmith welcomed the idea and was enlisted to be the inaugural featured guest and co-host at the initial LOFK fundraiser in 2007, which was held in the Hafter Student Community Center on the Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, campus. That first event, which included a silent auction featuring various Philadelphia Eagles paraphernalia as well as other donated items, exceeded expectations. While Falkowski admits the group couldn’t get a lot of buy-in from the community at large, the PCO family stepped up. According to the University’s revenue and expense files, the first event made $7,888.87. 

“I remember the Monday after the event, Sue and I were in the office counting up receipts, adding up what we owed and what we made,” said Falkowski. “Going into it, we were hoping to make $10,000. True to form, Sue looked at me with that sideways smile of hers and said, ‘Think we can do better next year?’ And I thought, OK, I guess this is going to be an annual thing then.”

School Vision Program

Brandy Scombordi-Raghu, OD ‘98, Resident ‘99, became involved with school vision screenings when she was a student at PCO in the mid-1990s. She was there when Dr. O and Paul Vallas, then superintendent of the SDP, got together and came up with the idea of sending Doctor of Optometry students and optometrists out into the school district to perform state-mandated vision screenings for students and then transport them to one of TEI’s locations for comprehensive eye exams.

In 2001, through a National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded grant, Elise Ciner, OD, FAAO, current PCO/Salus professor and co-director of Disability Services at TEI, began using the Mobile Unit to perform eye exams for SDP’s Head Start program. 

Dr. Scombordi-Raghu providing an eye exam to a pediatric patientThe unit — affectionately known as the “Big Red Bus” — is an eye examination lane on wheels that travels to schools in Philadelphia and surrounding areas to conduct comprehensive eye exams. The bus is on the road two to three times a week from October through the end of the school year. On average, 20 children per visit receive comprehensive eye examinations, sometimes including dilation. And, two pairs of prescription glasses are dispensed within two to three weeks following the exam, if needed - one for home and one for school. 

Funds raised from the annual charity fundraiser help provide these comprehensive vision care services and maintain the bus; more recently, funds are being used to purchase a new bus, expected to arrive sometime in 2024.

“For a long time, I had absolutely nothing to do with planning the fundraiser. This is my first year on the other side and what a great year to be helping out when we are honoring Dr. O. She has always been such an amazing mentor and friend,” said Dr. Scombordi-Raghu. 

Since the school vision programs have expanded over the years, there is a process currently in which the University determines which school districts can benefit the most. 

“In the early years, we had a lot more time in our schedule. If a school approached us, we could fit them in. But we get so many requests, especially after the pandemic, that to squeeze in a new school or a new district, we really have to investigate if they qualify,” said Dr. Scombordi-Raghu. “The way we’ve done that is by looking at the district’s free and reduced lunches. We look at the number of students free and reduced lunch and how many students are below the poverty line for the state in each school. That directs us into which community we’re going into. We know the impact we have and the difference we make in these children’s lives. It is very hard to have to say no when you know the need is there.”

Schools Buy In

Joanne Packer, MSN, first met Dr. Scombordi-Raghu when the latter was a PCO student. Packer was a school nurse at Wagner Middle School, 1701 W. Chelten Ave., just a few blocks from TEI. “Dr. Scombordi-Raghu was very competitive and wanted to do as many screenings (on-site at Wagner) as she could. And, I availed her to as many students as she wanted,” said Packer.

Packer said she was initially introduced to the LOFK fundraiser as a guest of Dr. O, but wanted to do more. For years before her retirement, Packer volunteered for the event and sold raffle tickets during the evening’s festivities.

Young girl with glasses holding a thumbs up“It is amazing what LOFK has done. However the parents abdicate the responsibility of getting their kids eyeglasses and exams — whether it’s financial or work that prevents them from doing it — it was just wonderful to be able to take care of that,” said Packer. 

When she retired from the SDP, Packer was asked by Dr. O to work one day a week on the Big Red Bus, fitting the children for glasses and then delivering glasses to the schools, something she still does to this day.

You Can Check Out Anytime You Like, But . . .

After working with Dr. O for 29-plus years and serving on that very first LOFK committee, Cathie Muhr retired in 2010 from PCO, which established Salus University in 2008. But by 2013, the school vision program had expanded into the Norristown Area School District in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Even though she initially started at TEI as an optometric technician, Muhr’s job had evolved. At the time, her job responsibilities had transitioned from optometric technician to educational coordinator at TEI. Dr. O would eventually ask Muhr to come out of retirement and help on the Big Red Bus.

“I said to Sue, ‘I haven’t been a tech in 30 years.’ And, she said, ‘It’s like riding a bike.’ And, I said, ‘But I’ve never worked with kids.’ And, she said, ‘Most of them are shorter than you,’” said Muhr.

For the first two years, Luis Trujillo, OD ‘09, Resident ‘12, and Muhr were the Norristown team, working together to conduct eye exams, and frame selection for eight to 10 students a day on-site at Norristown schools most in need. By the third year, every school in the district was being served, and optometric interns were assigned to participate in this patient care experience. 

“Sue has always been a big proponent of providing quality eye care to all populations and providing student education. She saw this as an opportunity to do that in a way that really benefited underserved communities. That was also big on her priority list,” said Muhr. “I think that’s why Norristown was chosen, because of the number of kids that were uninsured. And, the LOFK umbrella is for those who are under-insured and can’t get care in any other way.”

Head Start Collaboration

In addition to partnering with the SDP, TEI also collaborated with Head Start programs in the Greater Philadelphia area. Head Start is a primarily federally-funded program that provides education, health and social services to families with children aged 3, 4 and 5.

By 1983, there were about 20 Head Start sites in the SDP, and that’s when Gale Orlansky, OD, MEd, then assistant professor at PCO, who retired in 2022, began working with Head Start, a role she would serve in for more than 30 years. It was Satya Verma, OD ‘75, FAAO, FNAP, Diplomate, now retired director of Externship Programs at PCO/Salus, who initiated contact with the Head Start program in the SDP in those early years. 

“Sue was very supportive of what I was doing, what we were all doing, for the children. She was beyond an event planner, she was the coordinator, she was the backbone, she had the spirit behind it that kept it going. It was something that we needed for our patients,” said Dr. Orlansky. 

She added that those involved with the program were always interested in getting involved in the community and ensuring children received the eye care they needed. “That’s who we are. We are about providing for the community at all levels,” said Dr. Orlansky.

Better Than Anticipated

But it was Dr. O who started it all, with a good idea in 2006 that turned out to be even better than she could have anticipated — the Looking Out for Kids fundraiser.

Dr. O holding the lighthouse awardAnd, for her longtime dedication to the initiative, Dr. O has been named the 2023 LOFK “Lighthouse Award” recipient. She will be presented with her award at the annual event on Nov. 11, 2023

“One of the things that’s gratifying to me, if you feel so strongly about something, then you can’t carry it by yourself. You have to find people who will follow along with you, will embrace the challenge,” said Dr. O. “Brandy and Cathie are two people, but there were many more who said, OK, this is meaningful, this is impactful, this is making a difference in the lives of these kids. Let’s do this,” she said.

The event has continued to grow over the years. In 2008, the second year of the event, according to expense and revenue records the fundraiser made more than $25,000. During this same year, sponsorships were incorporated into the event, which contributed to the increase in profit. 

Currently, LOFK clears more than $100,000 in profit, contributing to supporting comprehensive vision and hearing services to disadvantaged children in Philadelphia and its surrounding communities.