Dr. David Judge, Mike McElhaney, Nancy Helms Ryan, Barry Elliot and Betty Willoughby advocate for quality vision care through the Joel W. Helms Lions Eye Clinic. Katie Bohannon/Messenger.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
A transformative and remarkable resource rooted in Etowah County celebrated a new era in October, remembering a past characterized by compassion and striving toward a future fostering benevolence toward all.
For more than 70 years, the Joel W. Helms Lions Eye Clinic has provided free eye examinations and low-cost eyeglasses to the medically indigent citizens of Etowah County. One month ago, the clinic welcomed the community to experience the latest chapter in its history of advocacy, signifying its partnership with the Gadsden Public Library.
254 South College Street now serves as the home of much more than beloved literature. The library’s second floor houses the Joel W. Helms Lions Eye Clinic, providing residents with an office space to conduct appointments, fill out applications and undergo screenings. After receiving approval that coincide with clinic qualifications, eye exams are provided at no cost, with glasses only requiring a small fee. If eyeglasses are needed, the patient is referred to Professional Opticians of Gadsden with his or her prescription, where he or she gains glasses crafted from a selection of frames.
Patients pay $15 for single vision glasses, $25 for bifocals and $35 for trifocals, with the option for tint only an additional $15. The remainder of the cost is paid by the clinic. Should a patient require eye surgery, the clinic refers he or she to the Lions Eye Clinic at the UAB Callahan Eye Hospital in Birmingham.
“The Clinic is only able to help meet the eye care needs of those in need through the generosity of local ophthalmologists and optometrists who donate their services to provide the eye exams,” said Joel W. Helms Lions Eye Clinic Interim Director Nancy Helms Ryan, daughter of Joel W. Helms.
A coalition of ophthalmologists committed to the clinic’s exceptional cause ensure its successful operation. Those involved include clinic interim associate director Dr. David Judge, Dr. Tony Catanzaro, Dr. Barry Dabbs, Dr. Mark Hill, and Dr. Bradley Langston, along with Optometrists, Dr. David Clokey, III, Dr. John Mark Cooper and Dr. J. R. Nobles, Jr.
Ryan commemorated the clinic’s move to the library and its continuance in the community with a grand re-opening reception, where Lions Clubs members and avid supporters of the Joel W. Helms Lions Eye Clinic expressed their admiration of its mission. During the celebration, Beautiful Rainbow Café catered refreshments. Originally founded by the local Lions Club, the clinic relies on the support of the Lions Clubs of Etowah County, including Gadsden, Hokes Bluff, Hokes Bluff Tawannah and Rainbow City. Generous contributors throughout the community join the clinic in its noble endeavors, embarking alongside the clinic to provide complete eye care for individuals county-wide.
“I enjoy being with people who have a heart of service,” said Alabama Lions Sight Executive Director Barry Elliot during the reception. “As I think about the influence and impact that the Gadsden and Etowah County Lions have had when it comes to vision care, I am truly amazed.”
Elliot was among those who testified to the Lions clinic’s life-changing work, sharing a personal experience with his granddaughter. During a Lions clinic screening at her kindergarten in Virginia, the club discovered Elliot’s granddaughter had a form of myopia that would have resulted in partial or total loss of eyesight by the age of seven, had it not been caught early-on. Joel W. Helms Eye Clinic Service Coordinator Betty Willoughby, who acts as the clinic’s liaison at the library and serves as director of Mental Health America of Etowah reiterated Elliot’s anecdote, noting that countless success stories spring forth from the clinic continuously. Mike McElhaney, 1st Vice District Governor of Alabama Lions District 34A, also spoke with those at the reception promising his continued commitment and support for the clinic.
“I get the privilege of hearing their stories and see the delight on their face when we’re able to help them,” said Willoughby of the patients she interviews for the program.
Since its inception over 100 years ago in 1917, Lions Clubs International’s mission remains simple and stalwart – to serve with unmitigated kindness, improving communities across the world. With humanitarian efforts empowering individuals and impacting lives for the better, Lions Clubs foster peace and encourage understanding among men and women of all backgrounds.
In addition to combating global hunger and striving to sustainably protect and restore the environment, Lions Clubs prove instrumental in advocating for progress and providing essential services for those with diabetes and childhood cancer. While all these causes nurture the Lions’ goodwill toward their neighbors, reinforcing the club’s emphasis on service, one Alabama native served as a catalyst for change – inspiring Lions nationwide to become protectors of the visually impaired.
At the Lions 1925 International Convention, author and advocate Helen Keller addressed club members about an imperative opportunity knocking at their doorstep. During this time, the American Foundation for the Blind was just four years old, sparked from the needs of those experiencing visual impairment or blindness, such as Keller herself. Keller implored the Lions to embark on a journey alongside the American Foundation for the Blind, to channel compassion into action and extend support where understanding and unity abound.
“The opportunity I bring to you, Lions, is this: to foster and sponsor the work of the American Foundation for the Blind,” said Keller. “Will you not help me hasten the day when there shall be no preventable blindness; no little deaf, blind child untaught; no blind man or woman unaided? I appeal to you Lions, you who have your sight, your hearing, you who are strong and brave and kind. Will you not constitute yourselves Knights of the Blind in this crusade against darkness?”
The Lions accepted the mantle bestowed upon them, believing in Keller’s vision for the future. Five years later, the Gadsden Lions Club formed, planting seeds of partnership that still flourish today. Keller’s speech did not go unheard, nor did her words lose consequence with the passing of time. In the early 1940s, Birmingham Lions formed the Alabama Lions Sight Conservation Association, a non-profit organization providing funds for both the diagnosis and treatment of eye defects and diseases for the state’s medically indigent.
With 80 percent of vision impairments proving either preventable or curable, Lions strive to fulfill Keller’s mission through vision screenings, educational opportunities, clinic accessibility and training programs. This same purpose manifested in the City of Champions in 1965, when Joel W. Helms recognized a need for resurgence, following the retirement of the two local Ophthalmologists who were providing services for the clinic. Helms enlisted the support of Dr. Alston Callahan, who agreed to send the first two residents of the newly established Ophthalmology Residency Program at Eye Foundation Hospital (now UAB Callahan Eye Hospital) to provide eye care services for the clinic once a week. After their residencies, Dr. Michael W. McIntyre and Dr. Hugh C. Nickson, each established their practices in Gadsden.
Following service in the U.S. Navy during the early 1950s, Helms garnered an interest in vision care while working in an optical lab in California. When he and his wife, Addie, moved back to Gadsden, Helms walked into a position at Professional Opticians, a role he acquired after his father shared a bus seat with the store’s manager who sought a lab technician. Helms worked diligently at Professional Opticians, eventually purchasing the store and overseeing its provisions for the community.
At 25, Helms joined the Lions Club. His passion for aiding those who were visually impaired and providing the community with access to quality eye care sparked a lifetime of service, notable in his efforts to rejuvenate the Gadsden Lions Eye Clinic. Throughout the years, his contributions demonstrated the benevolent principles Lions adopt in their daily lives, with Helms becoming president of the Alabama Lions Sight Conservation Association from 1969 to 1970 and founding the Alabama Lions Eye and Tissue Bank.
Ryan attested to the clinic’s phenomenal footprint on Gadsden, which at one time serviced far more than Etowah County alone, providing resources for up to seven surrounding counties. The clinic’s instrumental influence emerged in a paramount manner, assisting patients of all ages and even performing surgery locally.
Ryan recalls a childhood enriched with her father’s dedication to his community, witnessing qualities of compassion and diligence he instilled in his children. She remembers the clinic’s transformative nature, reading articles her mother saved in scrapbooks and listening to her father’s stories of patients whose lives were significantly affected for the better. From a 15-year-old student struggling in school only to realize she could not see letters a foot high, to a child whose clinic screening discovered an abscess that would have proven detrimental to her vision, testimony after testimony arose of the Gadsden clinic’s incredible work.
Though incorporated in the 1990s, when Ryan’s brother David became the clinic’s director, the Etowah County Lions Eye Clinic, Inc. was later renamed in their father’s honor, coined the Joel W. Helms Lions Eye Clinic. When David passed away in January of 2021, Ryan adopted the mantra he and her father upheld for decades, dedicating herself to the same extraordinary purpose they so diligently fulfilled year after year – committing herself to change lives as her predecessors before her.
“He always had a love for helping people,” said Ryan of her father, who (along with her brother) inspired her to chart a new course. “That made me determined to carry on my dad’s and brother’s legacy for the citizens of this community. We hopefully can continue and increase the services and number of people that the clinic can reach. [The clinic] has a long history and it should be carried on. I realized I also have a passion for making sure people are taken care of and for knowing that my dad’s and all other Lions’ efforts did not go in vain.”
The Joel W. Helms Lions Eye Clinic is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Tax-deductible contributions can be mailed to P.O. Box 8245, Gadsden, AL 35902. For more information about the clinic or to schedule an appointment, contact Betty Willoughby at 256- 613-7279.