For the region’s poorest and uninsured people, getting eye care can be daunting and difficult. But about 2,000 people a year have found a way to get the help they need. The Florida Lions Eye Clinic offers free cutting edge care to children, families and adults who do not have medical insurance and who meet the eligibility criteria by being well below the poverty line. Now the center, located in Bonita Springs, has a new executive director who hopes to expand services to even more people.
Robin Goldstone Garcia recently took the reins of the small yellow building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Bonita. The new Executive Director arrives with a wealth of experience, both professional and personal. Garcia graduated from SUNY Oswego in New York with degrees in psychology and business and headed for 20 years working in the software industry and then as a financial advisor. But a personal journey also led her to volunteer for Lighthouse of Collier County. Her son was born with Usher syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes deafness. At the age of 12, her son also began to lose his eyesight.
“So I started looking for information and started volunteering at Lighthouse,” she explained.
Soon they asked him to become the executive director of this organization. Years later, she became deputy director of the Florida Blind Services Division and moved to Tallahassee. But after only a year in this job, she realized it wasn’t for her.
“I felt I could make more of a difference at the community level than at the state level,” she said.
After taking a year off during the pandemic, Garcia landed a job at Lions Club’s Eye Center in Bonita. As she settles into her new job, Garcia dreams of goals to help even more people in the eye care field.
“We are the only free eye clinic in the state of Florida,” she said, explaining that they are the only ones that offer free services exclusively for eye care. “I would like to see, in 10 years, that we have satellite offices so that we can provide service outside of Lee and Collier counties. It is absolutely my dream.
It has to do with her second dream – to bring people to the clinic. The eye center primarily sees people from Lee and Collier counties, but anyone in the state who meets the requirements is eligible. Still, Garcia says even those who live in the county sometimes have a hard time getting there.
“There are so many people in our community right now who need eye care, but transportation is a struggle,” she explained. “Often they make an appointment and then have to cancel. One of the things I want to do is try to provide transportation.
While some eye surgeries can be performed on site, others cannot. People requiring cataract surgery or those with serious eye damage should be referred to an ophthalmologist.
“The other thing I want to do is hire ophthalmologists and other centers to provide pro bono,” she said. “It’s very difficult to do. What we do is ask them to provide a free service. One of my missions is to hire these ophthalmologists.
Garcia said patients who need surgery outside of their facility will always receive help.
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“We have this little surgery fund that we are trying to develop,” she explained. “It’s limited, so we have to prioritize. If it’s an emergency, we’ll find the money. If it’s a cataract that hasn’t progressed, they may be on a waiting list until we get the funding. “
The eye center is funded by the Lion’s Club, the Florida Association of Free and
Charity Clinics, State of Florida, United Way, Florida Lions Foundation for the Blind, NCEF, SW Florida Community Foundation, Community Foundation of Collier County, various churches, foundations, clubs and individual donors. Securing more grants is also high on its priority list.
His list of goals continues with a plan to launch a vision initiative in Lee County similar to that in Collier County.
“One of the things that excites me a lot is the vision initiative,” she said. “I want to do it as something where people come together to focus on the people who need eye care. I would really like to bring this group of people together.
Another goal is to make the center known to people and to help even undocumented clients understand that they are welcome and protected.
“It’s one of my challenges right now,” she explained.
There are newsletters and press releases, but Garcia knows that is not enough. She has to go to areas where people need help.
“We try to go to as many health fairs as possible,” she explained. “We couldn’t do it last year. Go out in the community to do screenings; this is where people find you. Much of it is word of mouth. We have to go where they work and where the real need is. “
The clinic now receives 40 to 50 people per week. After being closed for a while during the pandemic, clients and volunteer doctors are returning.
Garcia said the eye center has so many heartwarming stories of helping people. There’s this eight-year-old girl who always thought vision was blurry until she received her first glasses which not only improved her eyesight, but also her reading and writing. There’s the man who had advanced glaucoma and was at risk of losing his sight and now that risk is gone, and there’s the man who thought he should stop working and supporting his family when the pterygium caused the extension of fibrovascular tissue over the cornea and iris. After the operation, his vision improved and he returned to work. Garcia said even the little things are inspiring.
“We donate sunglasses and reading glasses and these women came from one of the homeless shelters and they were trying on sunglasses and it was so heartwarming,” she said.
Garcia said she knew how important this eye care was.
“My son has Usher Syndrome and knowing that his eye condition will only worsen over time, along with the stress and anxiety I was going through,
I can’t imagine not being able to provide the care he needs if I can’t afford it, ”she said. “My main goal is for the patient to walk through the door and make sure their eyesight is as good as possible. Something as simple as being able to play ball with their children or see their grandchildren or have job stability. Our eyes play such an important role in this. I hope what I can bring to this organization will help someone see.
“We have a vision here.”