By Caleb Hennington
Digital Content Editor
In the Gospel of Mark, we witness one of the few times that a recipient of Jesus’ miraculous healing power is named. Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, receives the gift of sight from Christ while Jesus and his disciples are on their way through Jericho.
Oaklawn United Methodist Church realizes the necessity of a good pair of eyeglasses, and through their Bart’s Place Eye Clinic, named after Bartimaeus from the Gospel of Mark, they are able to freely give the gift of sight to disadvantaged patrons in their community.
“We don’t have the power to heal the blind as Jesus did but through optometry and ophthalmologists working with us, we can work to restore vision in a positive way,” said the Rev. Russell Breshears, senior pastor at Oaklawn UMC in Hot Springs.
About 10 years ago, Breshears was serving a different appointment at Oak Forest UMC in Little Rock. The church was well-known in its community because of the free dental and medical clinics that operated out of its building during the week. But Breshears and church leadership were looking for ways to expand their free clinics into another area: eye care.
“At the time, one of the local eye clinics located in a Walmart was going out of business, and they were getting ready to sell off all of their old equipment. And I said, ‘well hold on, we can use that equipment. We have a medical and dental clinic; we really need an eye clinic as well.’”
After some negotiations with Walmart, Breshears was able to acquire the equipment for Oak Forest and move the eye clinic into a room in the church’s basement that, because of its absence of windows and natural light, was perfect for eye examinations.
Another miracle happened when Dr. Tim Norton, an optometrist who owns Contact Lenses Xpress of Little Rock and Hot Springs, offered his services for free after seeing a story about Oak Forest’s clinics on TV.
“He asked me how much we were purchasing our frames for and I told him about $15 – $20 a pair. He said, ‘Well, how would you like to pay zero dollars?’ It’s kind of hard to say no to zero,” Breshears said.
“It’s a partnership of the church, doctors, and the labs that create the eyeglasses. Everybody working together.”
The eye clinic at Oak Forest is still in operation, but Breshears was appointed to Oaklawn UMC in 2015, meaning he had to leave the clinic he had been instrumental in setting up.
Breshears, however, wasn’t going to leave the idea of a free eye clinic behind in Little Rock. He wanted to bring the knowledge he gained from the Oak Forest eye clinic to the Hot Springs community as well.
The church quickly latched on to the idea, and Bart’s Place opened for business.
Although visitors to Bart’s Place Eye Clinic don’t receive an eye exam on-site as they did at Oak Forest, the clinic still measures patients’ eyes and fits them with a brand new pair of frames for their glasses.
“When we started the eye clinic at Oaklawn, we partnered with the Hot Springs Cooperative Christian Ministries and Clinic. And they do our eye exams and then send people over to us to select their frames.”
According to their website, the CCMC treats the sick who can’t afford the cost of a doctor’s appointment or a prescription, which includes individuals who have no health insurance – Medicaid or Medicare – and need help but have nowhere else to turn.
Rev. Russell Breshears (left) and Mabeline Norris (right) stand in front of the display case for the frames at Bart’s Place. || Photo by Caleb Hennington
When patients come to Bart’s, a volunteer measures the distance between the left and right pupils with a device. They then select a pair of frames from a wall of options, just like in a normal clinic. Breshears said that after selecting their frames, patients’ prescriptions are sent to Dr. Norton, and in about 2 – 3 weeks, a new pair of glasses will be ready for pick up.
“It’s a partnership of the church, doctors, and the labs that create the eyeglasses. Everybody working together,” Breshears said.
Every step of the process — from the examination to the new pair of glasses — is free for everyone in the community, but the clinic is particularly focused on helping underprivileged and underserved members of Hot Springs.
“We don’t have income criteria for the eye clinic, but we say if you cannot afford to get an examination and buy a pair of eyeglasses — which can sometimes be as much as $300 — then the church and the community can help you with that,” Breshears said.
Breshears estimates that Bart’s Place gives out somewhere between 50 – 60 eyeglasses per year.
A device that the volunteers at Bart’s Place use to measure the distance between the left and right pupils of a patient. These measurements are used to select the correct frame size for a new pair of glasses. || Photo by Caleb Hennington
Mabeline Norris, a resident of Hot Springs, is just one of the many people who has benefited from the free services at Bart’s Place.
“The way my Medicaid worked, they would pay for my eye exam, but not my glasses. So when I heard about Bart’s Place and them giving out glasses to folks, I said ‘Oh praise God! Thank you Lord!’ because I needed glasses bad and I couldn’t afford them,” Norris said.
Norris said she has been coming to Bart’s Place for about five years and recently found out that she has glaucoma, which means her prescription can change every year. Bart’s Place was able to find a pair of bifocals for her, which she said has greatly improved her vision.
“I was just using reading glasses before but now I can actually see!”
The clinic not only carries frames for adults, but they have a fun and colorful selection of children’s frames as well.
“That’s because Medicaid only covers one pair of glasses per year for kids, but little kids aren’t as careful as adults are with their glasses, so the local elementary schools will sometimes bring the kids who need new glasses to our clinic.
“This is all possible because of the partnerships we’ve made in the community. Our church is a mid-size church but because we have great volunteers, the space for the eyeglasses, and doctors who offer their services for free, we can do this work,” Breshears said.
For Norris, if not for Bart’s Place, she wouldn’t have the opportunities that she has now. Norris said that she considers herself homeless and spends her time volunteering at different churches in Hot Springs in order to make a little money and build her income back up.
Oaklawn gives her the opportunity to volunteer her time, as well as provide her with the glasses that she needs to see.
“[Oaklawn UMC] has been a real blessing to me. They show love and compassion to everyone. Anytime I need them, they are right here for me,” Norris said.
Breshears said this clinic has allowed their church to become more like the hands and feet of Christ.
“Not only can I tell someone that we can provide them food if they’re hungry, but we can now also tend to some of their real medical needs. I believe Jesus ministered to our bodies, minds, and souls. And it’s very gratifying when you see someone put on a new pair of glasses, maybe for the first time ever”
Bart’s Place Eye Clinic is open by appointment and is located at Oaklawn United Methodist Church, 216 Higdon Ferry Rd, Hot Springs, AR 71913.