The Special Olympics is known worldwide as a vehicle for athletic participation, but it has other benefits.
One such benefit is Opening Eyes.
Opening Eyes is an event in its 16th year in Stillwater tied to the Special Olympics. It is made up of volunteer optometrists and other workers. They provide vision tests for color, depth perception and other eye health tests. Each athlete even gets a free pair of eye glasses, or sunglasses if their vision is good. Polaroid and Fossil were among the choices.
The service is the result of donations of time and resources. Making their way through the Wes Watkins Center on Oklahoma State University's campus were about 175 volunteers and more than 500 athletes.
For many athletes, this is their first eye exam of their lives. It is a comfortable setting and more convenient. According to Lions Club International, one of the event sponsors, "68 percent of Special Olympics athletes have not had an eye examination in three years, 37 percent are in need of eyeglasses and 18 percent wear clinically-incorrect eyeglasses."
Dr. Wes DeRosier and his wife, Dr. Hedi Thoden brought Opening Eyes to Stillwater. They saw the need while working at the Northeastern State University Oklahoma's College of Optometry. They received phone calls seeking help with optometry access for the intellectually disabled.
Opening Eyes' success has almost ceased the calls. The operation's start was about one-third the size it is today, thanks to word-of-mouth and support from various optometry organizations and companies.
"It is very rewarding," DeRosier said. "It is fun walking around and getting big hugs from athletes and parents I have seen over the years."
DeRosier has seen access to optometry improve more than just vision. He said it also helps with maturity and development, as good vision helps incorporate other senses. He said one athlete was a routine second place finisher in races, but after getting vision screening and glasses, she started finishing in first place. She could see where she was running as opposed to just following another runner.
Opening Eyes is popular for the athletes and the volunteers. Student volunteers gain valuable experience and optometrists get a day out of the office.
Dr. Jason Ellen operates his optometry practice in Tulsa. He used to shut his whole operation down for the day so everyone could volunteer at Opening Eyes. Due to business growth, he has cut down in recent years. He had to implement a system to determine who gets to come every year because, "they would fight to come."
"They get more hugs, proposals and laughs when they come here than at the office," Ellen said.
Dr. John Millirons of Cockrell Eyecare Center in Stillwater is one of the volunteers who has been part of Opening Eyes since his optometry school days.
"I leave here feeling like they helped me just as much as I helped them," Millirons said. "I am happy to play a small part. I am ecstatic the Special Olympics is in our community and see it all come together. I am proud it is here."