Lena Wilson, 7, and her little brother, Tres Wilson, 5, stepped up into the white van, emblazoned on the side with a green University of North Texas Health Science Center logo.
The back of the ordinary-looking vehicle wasn’t what the two expected — there was a long cushy seat decorated with drawings of owls and other animals, and a UNT medical professor sat across from them, in front of a blue sheet that covered the two front seats. Lena felt “like I was at a farm,” as she later described giddily. The light inside the mobile exam room went off after a few seconds, and the doctor, Abe Clark, began the eye test.
He held up a device called a plusoptic refractometer, almost like an iPad with its big screen, except on one side there was a large black smiley face that jutted outward. It lit up red for a few seconds, taking scans of their eyes with infrared cameras.
The kids, who live in Mansfield, didn’t know what the doctor was measuring, or why they were asked to look at the friendly face looking back at them. But their mother, 32-year-old Brooke Wilson, did, and she was happy at the end of the exam when the lights came up and Clark informed them they passed.
Some time after the exam, Lena and Tres stood out in front of the Baker Chapel AME Church in Fort Worth, where a large event was unfolding that included free food and water distribution as well as voter registration and various health screenings.
The two were excited and filled with energy, not like they just got out of a medical appointment. They wore the free green sunglasses they were given.
When asked how it felt to pass the eye exam, Tres shouted out with happiness, “Healthy! I feel like I’m healthy!”
Brooke, who’s married to Baker Chapel AME Pastor the Rev. Melvin Wilson Jr., said the kids have had their eyes screened twice before with a pediatrician. But it was nice to have them tested once more.
“It’s amazing, especially to have it free, you don’t have to go through an insurance claim or anything like that,” she said. “I think it’s beautiful.”
The event on Saturday was about helping a community and a ZIP code that has faced hardships, from the impact of the COVID pandemic to the historic winter storms in February that swept through the region and left many without working electricity and water.
The 76104 ZIP code, which encompasses the church and its surrounding neighborhood close to downtown, has the lowest average life-expectancy in Texas, at 66.7 years, according to a UT Southwestern study. A Star-Telegram series explored the factors that drive this inequality, including the high cost and limited access to quality healthcare. There are also few grocery stores nearby, but plenty of convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.
Cars continued pulling through the church lot on Saturday during the event that ran from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and organizers were expecting to give away all of the boxes of food and water — enough for 200 cars — before the end. Baker Chapel AME has been doing the food giveaways every other Saturday since the storms passed, in partnership with the Community Food Bank. This weekend’s event, however, was the first day they partnered with other organizations like UNT and My Health My Resources of Tarrant County.
Donnetta Jackson, 66, was sitting in an SUV that pulled up on Saturday. As volunteers loaded Propel water and boxes of food like eggs into the vehicle, Jackson said she does the same thing for her church with a pantry.
Events like this, she said, “help us help someone else.”
“We have a lot of homeless people over here,” she said. “When I pick it up, I even give to them.”
Fewer people on Saturday were using the free health screenings, as Lena and Tres were the only two patients in the UNT eye exam as of around noon. At another station, also run by UNT, doctors were prepared to measure children’s height, weight and body mass index, or BMI, so they could see if they were at risk for obesity-related conditions like diabetes. No one had come to that station either by that time.
Clark, the UNT professor, said the UNT Health Science Center’s North Texas Eye Research Institute has so far screened the eyes of 12,000 kids for free. They have come to community events and gone into Fort Worth schools to do eye exams.
“These refractometers were purchased by community donations,” he said of the six machines that cost $6,000 apiece. “The community’s been great at supporting our program.”
The Rev. Melvin Wilson Jr. said he was impacted by the Star-Telegram 76104 series, and it led a group of pastors including himself to form Team 76104. They meet weekly on Thursdays to brainstorm ways to help the community thrive.
The articles, he said, were “a call to action” to unite different groups working toward a common goal. That’s what was happening on Saturday, he said.
“I think what it showed is the fact that we have all of these resources ... but not all in a concerted effort,” the AME pastor said. “So when we are doing something, we make sure to bring it up.”