Eye clinic planned to help poor and bring new life to historic Fort Worth church

Posted Friday, Apr. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- Seeking new ways to utilize underused space, First Christian Church in downtown Fort Worth will open an eye clinic this spring to aid the homeless and others who can't afford vision care.

Workers are converting the second floor of Fort Worth's oldest church into a state-of-the-art clinic to be staffed by medical students from University of Houston School of Optometry and the optometry school of University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.

The two universities are sharing construction and operational costs. Major financing also comes from the Alcon Foundation of Fort Worth and several manufacturers who are donating or offering low prices for the clinic's testing equipment.

The clinic is expected to open in May.

A key player in the $500,000 project is a national organization, Partners for Sacred Places, created in the 1980s to help save and revitalize historic church buildings around the nation.

Suzanne Yowell, director of the Fort Worth-based Texas branch of Partners for Sacred Places, welcomed community leaders to a recent luncheon announcing the clinic. A. Robert Jaeger of Philadelphia, the group's president, praised First Christian, the City of Fort Worth, Alcon and Fort Worth architect James Nader for helping launch the project.

"We need to come together to preserve and make the best use of our great old churches," Jaeger said. "Our goal is to help a church utilize underused space and bring new energy and new people into the church."

The Rev. Tom Plumbley, senior minister of First Christian, said his congregation of about 200 members is excited about the clinic.

"This congregation is more alive than it's been in a half century," Plumbley said. "We used to be the biggest church in town. We ain't anymore. But we still have life and faithfulness to our calling."

Plumbley said he received a call in February 2012 from the City of Fort Worth's homeless coalition's coordinator saying that Partners for Sacred Places had suggested his church as a possible location for the clinic.

"A survey by the University of Houston and the University of Incarnate Word had tested children in the community and shown a massive need for eye care," Plumbley said. "The goal was to open a free clinic to meet the needs of children and people of all ages."

Dr. Jennifer Deakins, a faculty member at the University of Houston who will be director of the clinic, said the facility will mirror a vision clinic in Dallas operated since 2000 in a facility provided by the Dallas housing authority.

"One of the really unique aspects of the Fort Worth clinic is that the staff of First Christian will allow us to care for the patient as a whole," Deakins said.

Patients who have their eyes examined and those accompanying them will be offered assistance from church volunteers and others in finding food, clothing, shelter and other services, she said.

Dr. Joe Deloach, who co-founded the Dallas clinic and will be regional administrator for the clinic at First Christian, said an Alcon official first suggested creating a clinic in Fort Worth.

Deakins said the eye clinic will offer free services to those who have few resources and very low-cost care to low-income families, Medicare and Medicaid recipients and those who can't afford insurance.

"We won't turn anyone away," Deakins said.

The clinic also hopes to link with ophthalmologists to provide any needed surgery, including referrals to Cornerstone Assistance Network's free cataract procedure facility, she said.

Marty Leonard, a Fort Worth civic leader on the board of Partners for Sacred Spaces, praised First Christian leaders for their bold experiment in opening their doors to a nonprofit clinic.

"It's a great partnership," she said. "This is such a special church, Fort Worth's oldest and a really neat space."

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