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Opening Eyes: Empowering Athletes to See Beyond a Screening

The importance of vision exams over screenings

Special Olympics Michigan (SOMI) athlete, C.J. VanSkiver, 24, has received vision screenings for as long as she can remember.

“Every time I get my eyes checked I am told my eyes are fine,” VanSkiver explained. 

It wasn’t until a trip through Healthy Athletes Village at the 2024 State Summer Games, that her eyes were truly opened. “When I was told I needed glasses, I was confused and shocked,” VanSkiver recalled.

In June, C.J. was one of more than 1800 athletes who underwent free health screenings offered by SOMI through Healthy Athletes. Everything checked out as it always does – until her visit with an optometrist at the Opening Eyes station.

“I was so surprised,” VanSkiver said when she was told she suffered from a stigmatism. “I got scared that there was something wrong with my eyes. I thought maybe I couldn’t see and hadn’t been able to see for as long as I wanted to.”

While C.J. could see, she learned her eyes could use a little extra help. The stigmatism forcing them to work harder at night and after long days, causing unnecessary strain. A free pair of glasses – offered as part of the Opening Eyes screening - was the fix.

“The screening is only as good as the screener,” said Jody Sivyer, the optician that worked C.J. and dozens of other athletes at Summer Games this June.  “You don’t have to be a medical professional,” she explained of the previous vision screenings C.J. had experienced in the past.

Sivyer (left), VanSkiver (right)

For the majority of her life, VanSkiver had participated in routine vision screenings offered through school, work, etc. However, Opening Eyes offered her a true vision exam and time with a doctor, evaluating the overall health of her eyes – inside and out.

“A screening does not place an in-chair eye exam with the optometrist,” Sivyer explained while polishing a fresh set of frames for her next appointment to try on. “I learned that when my oldest daughter was four. I asked the optometrist ‘when do kids start having eye exams,’ he said ‘age three.’  She had already missed two exams. She passed her well screening at the pediatrician’s office and at preschool, but she had one heck of a prescription when she went to the optometrist.”

The confusion Sivyer encountered is one many parents face. It was her own learning experience that prompted her to dedicate her life to educating others on eye health. It’s working with youth that she enjoys most.

“These kids will come to us and they will need their first pair of glasses,” Sivyer explained. “But often they are 13 or 14-years-old and have needed them for years. So many kids don’t know that everyone doesn’t see the way that they see.”

Opening Eyes is one of nine disciplines offered under the Healthy Athletes umbrella of Special Olympics, aimed at offering free health care for an underserved population. Since its inception in 1997, more than 2-million screenings have been offered to athletes around the world by trained medical professionals. 2400 athletes in Michigan have received health screenings in the first six months of 2024.

The disciplines include: MedFest (annual physical exam), Opening Eyes (vision/eye health), Healthy Hearing (audiology), Special Smiles (dentistry), Health Promotion (nutrition), Strong Minds (emotional health), FUNFitness (physical therapy), Fit Feet (podiatry), and Healthy Young Athletes (fine and gross motor skills, ages 2-7).

Sivyer, who has been volunteering for Opening Eyes for the last five years, encourages parents to take advantage of the free resources. According to Sivyer, it’s the early developmental years that can be the most impactful.

“I had a patient come in, she was about 20 years old,” Sivyer remembered.  “She was so excited because it was the day the doctor was going to tell her she could see well enough to get her driver’s license. She ended up crying as she was leaving. The doctor said she didn’t have her eyes corrected early enough in life, so her eyes hadn’t fully developed. Now her eyes will never be corrected well enough for her to legally drive.”

Frames fitting at Opening Eyes It was a conversation with Sivyer that helped VanSkiver better understand her stigmatism, those initial fears melting into excitement as she was tried on a number of different frame styles and was fitted for her first ever pair of glasses.

“It helped that someone was able to explain to me what was wrong. I accepted it,” VanSkiver said. “It was fun to pick out the frames, they are tortoise shell and a new accessory.” VanSkiver’s new frames will be shipped directly to her home in the next few weeks, something the athlete is looking forward to.

As for Sivyer, she’s already looking forward to her time at Opening Eyes at the 2025 Summer Games. Until then, she offers this advice: “Those annual eye exams are so important, a lot of times people want to cut it short, you only get one pair of eyes – 80% of learning is visual.”

To learn more about Healthy Athletes programming, click here for a link to the Special Olympics Michigan website.