NORTH SALEM, N.Y. – For the past two years, North Salem’s Bill Papp, vice president of the Lions Club, has been traveling from the Bronx to Peekskill, dropping into early education centers to photograph the eyes of children younger than age 5.
Papp is the only member of the North Salem Lions Club dedicated to the project titled Screening Eyes Early (SEE). “I’m not good at soliciting funds,” said Papp, “but this, I can do.”
Eyesight became a special focus of the Lions Club in 1925, when Helen Keller addressed its nationwide convention and challenged the Lions to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.”
Papp uses a Polaroid-type camera, valued at about $5,000, to take the photographs. Then he sends them to an eye center in Rochester, along with a parent's signed consent forms. Doctors in Rochester examine the pictures and identify those children who ought to see an eye doctor near home.
“The examiners look for nearsightedness, farsightedness, cataracts, whether one eye is stronger than the other and certain cancers,” Papp said. “Statistics show that between three and four percent of the kids need referrals. But if one in a thousand exposes a cancer, it’s worth it. Most of the problems can be solved if they’re detected early enough.”
Papp intends to use the current camera until he can no longer get film for it. Then he will switch to a newer design. “Most kids are intrigued with the older camera when the picture comes out and they see their eyes. But the new one takes eye measurements, too,” he said.
During his roughly two-year stint, Papp has photographed more than 1,000 children. The most difficult thing about it is, “some kids are fidgety,” he said. “Or they’re afraid to have their picture taken. There was one little girl in New Rochelle who was crying her eyes out. She wouldn't let anyone take her picture. Finally, her classmates gathered around her to comfort her and help her stay still. I had just a second to take her picture."
Since it launched its global eyesight program, SightFirst, in 1990, the Lions Club International has raised more than $346 million for this particular initiative. SightFirst targets the major causes of blindness, such as cataracts, trachoma, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma.