ROCK ISLAND -- When her daughter was 6 months old, Lisa Viaene suspected something wasn't right with her baby's beautiful eyes.|
After a pediatrician told her not to worry, she switched doctors and got a referral to the Wolfe Eye Clinic in Marshalltown, where an ophthalmologist confirmed her daughter, Angela, now 28, was blind in one eye, and stood a chance of losing sight in the other.
Being told that her daughter may never have a normal, active childhood, or be able to play sports or drive was heartbreaking, Ms. Viaene said.
Angela was 13 months old when she had eye surgery to correct the muscle misalignment problems detected by doctors, and "she became a totally different child," Mrs. Viaene said.
Before the surgery, Angela wasn't able to walk because of being disoriented. She eventually became a soccer player and ran track in school, "and now even drives in Chicago," where she's a medical student at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago.
"But if I hadn't been the type of parent who kept pushing for answers, she probably would have been blind," Mrs. Viaene said. "There's other children and families out there who may not be as fortunate."
It's one of the major reasons Mrs. Viaene has made it a top priority to get a new vision screening system for several local agencies, in which she's heavily involved. "In my world, it's at the top of the list after living with what my daughter went through," she said.
Her priority list also is filled with anything that makes life better for children and families, no matter where they hail from, she said. "I truly have a passion for helping others, especially children."
Her two main jobs include working at Child and Family Connections, a state program for children from birth to age 3, and serving as a Black Hawk College Family Literacy site coordinator at Church of Peace in Rock Island, which works with 78 refugees from five countries who speak eight dialects.
While adults learn English and take other classes designed to help acclimate them to living in the Quad-Cities, "we also provide child care for their little ones," Mrs. Viaene said.
But the care she provides those children and families stretches far past the time spent at the church. Mrs. Viaene constantly collects clothes, household goods, furniture and other items for refugee families.
During the recent holiday season, Mrs. Viaene nominated a couple families to receive special help from The Dispatch Good Fellow and The Rock Island Argus Santa Fund.
Many other families were helped by independent drives, such as one led by the Dispatch/Argus newsroom, and other community groups.
"During the Christmas season of giving, we were able to help 50 to 55 families this year," said Mrs. Viaene, who shies away from taking any credit.
"It wasn't what I did that counted," she said. "It was everybody's generosity that made it happen."
As secretary of a nonprofit Early Childhood Coalition, Mrs. Viaene is counting on the community's generosity to raise the $7,000 needed to buy a new "Spot" vision screening program to replace an old photo screener that's on its last legs, she said.
"Spot is a fast, portable, easy-to-use vision screening system designed to quickly detect several ophthalmological issues in children, from near-sightedness to eye misalignment," according to coalition information.
"Our old photo screener is obsolete," Mrs. Viaene said. "The Polaroid like film is no longer made, but the worst part of it is that whenever you turn it on, you have to pray it works.
"We have enough film for about 50 more screenings, but we don't know if the camera will continue to turn on 50 more times," she said. "We have screenings coming up, but we don't know if the old screener or film supplies will hold out."
So far, the coalition has received a $1,000 donation for the $7,000 machine. Donations can be sent to the coalition at 4341 18th Ave., Rock Island, IL 61201.
Since forming in September 2002, the coalition has provided free monthly screenings for more than 2,200 children. The new camera will allow for thousands of additional children to be screened, Mrs. Viaene said. "And when vision problems are found early, children will be more successful throughout their lives."
When Mrs. Viaene and her family moved to the Quad-Cities in 2000, she first worked at a United Way program called "Success By 6," which was devoted to making sure kids, by age 6, would have everything they needed to be successful in school.
"I absolutely loved that program, and wish it were still around," Mrs. Viaene said.
After funding for the program ended, she eventually joined Child and Family Connections and the Black Hawk College literacy outreach program, and calls her jobs "a gift."
"It gives me a purpose in life," Mrs. Viaene said. "Many people may look at what I do and wonder why I love it so much, and there are some people who absolutely would never want to do what I do. But to me, it's something I can absolutely see and feel do a world of good."
Hearing stories told by refugees particularly inspire her, she said.
"They came with nothing, and they ask for nothing, but are such wonderful people," Mrs. Viaene said. "When you hear their stories of what they had to endure to get here, it takes your breath away.
And it's just so amazing what a new pair of socks or a warm coat means to them, and what a big smile it puts on their faces. When they give you a hug, it's a real hug. They are so appreciative of everything you do and everything you give them."
She can see it in their eyes.
Lisa Viaene bio box
Name: Lisa Viaene
Home town: Aberdeen, Miss.
Family: husband, Michael; daughter, Angela, Chicago; son, Derek, Bettendorf
Favorite hymn: "How Great Thou Art"
Favorite Biblical character I'd like to meet: "Jesus"
Hobbies: jogging/running, family, friends, traveling
One thing I feel strongly about: "I truly have a passion for helping others, especially children
I wish I knew how to: cook