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From low vision to Parkinson’s disease, when Tennesseans face sensory challenges, these 6 nonprofits step in

Key Takeaways

  • The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Community Trust donated more than $15,000 to the six organizations mentioned below. In total, the trust has donated $517,054 to Tennessee nonprofits in 2021.
  • The Community Trust provides support to nonprofit partners across Tennessee. Funding focuses on charitable clinics, disease prevention and treatment, youth development, and diversity and inclusion.
  • By age 85, studies show that 94% of people experience a loss of at least one of the five senses.

“You can be anything you want to be.”

It’s a message that we, as adults, want to be able to deliver confidently to every child. Sadly, circumstances sometimes get in the way, says Regina Bontreger, a case specialist at Sight Savers America (SSA) in the children’s Low Vision Program. Her team helps kids with severe visual impairments access the assistive technology they need, and they’re a recipient of 2021 funding from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Community Trust.

The Community Trust provides support to health-focused programs and organizations statewide, working with partners like Sight Savers America to promote the wellbeing of Tennesseans. “The Community Trust was established in 1999 and began distributing funds in 2000,” said Chelsea Johnson, BlueCross director of community relations. “Each year, we give between $400,000 and $500,000 to partners who use the grants to sponsor special events aimed at fundraising and raising awareness for various causes.”

For SSA, this support has been life-changing for Tennessee’s children.

“One child I worked with really wanted to be an architect,” she says. “But based on his vision — he was nearly legally blind — he was already running into roadblocks, even in his early teens. He said, ‘I just don’t think I can go into architecture with all the detail you have to do.’”

Then they sat down with his equipment. Regina watched as he explored the electronic video magnifier (EVM) Sight Savers provided. EVMs are life-changing devices that allow kids to make the most of their remaining vision. They dramatically enhance contrast and magnify objects up to 118x, which not only helps with reading and writing, but also with grooming and personal care — which many of these kids can’t do on their own — and even with seeing their loved ones’ faces clearly. And, of course, they give users the kind of detail an architect needs to draw plans. 

“This child was thrilled to see this possibility that he’d already started to give up on coming back,” Regina says. “We opened up this dream for him that otherwise he wasn’t sure he’d be able to do. There’s no better feeling in the world than that.”

Turning need into opportunity

Low vision affects 1 of every 1,000 children of every race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status , and many families can’t afford the assistive technology their child needs to thrive and be truly self-sufficient. To find and help these families, Regina and her team work with schools, teachers of children who are blind or visually impaired, special education teachers, optometrists, ophthalmologists and low vision specialists.

To date, Sight Savers has:

  • Screened 18,064 children for vision and health needs
  • Referred more than 43,000 children for follow-up eye care
  • Served more than 3,000 children with severe visual impairment across 16 states
  • Successfully eliminated the backlog of children with low-vision needs in many service areas, including 75% of the children in need in Memphis
  • Delivered high-tech visual aids to more than 2,400 people

In 2021, the BlueCross Community Trust provided a $2,500 grant to support the Sight Savers Low Vision Program in Tennessee .

“I actually got to see how the money given by the BlueCross Community Trust in Nashville this year directly changed lives,” Regina says. “I remember one child, Jace Davis, who I was able to help from his intake call all the way through. I got to see how excited he was when he got his equipment. Changing lives in concrete ways wouldn’t be possible without grants like this one, and without incredible levels of support from everyone in the community. It’s a privilege to be able to help these families and these kids.”

Jace Davis

In order to be eligible for grants from the BlueCross Community Trust, nonprofits must focus on:

  • Charitable care
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Disease management
  • Youth development

Many, like Sight Savers, address multiple focus areas. Here are five more 2021 grantees helping Tennesseans with sensory or physical disabilities.

Elvis 5k

LivItUp, Inc.

Since 1980, LivItUp, Inc. has made its mission in the Mid-South to improve the quality of life for people with cerebral palsy, as well as other severe disabilities. Cerebral palsy affects a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. It’s the most common motor disability in childhood, affecting up to 4 of every 1,000 children.

“Our mission is to advance the independence, productivity and full citizenship of people with disabilities,” says Kelly Burrow, executive director of LivItUp, Inc. “These families face financial, social and psychological hardships every day, but we know that, with a little help, they can live full, happy, independent lives.”

LivItUp services are available to 130,000 people with disabilities in the Mid-South . Their Adult Care Enrichment Center helps people with intellectual disabilities enhance their independence in the classroom and the community, while their Employment Training Center helps people develop the skills and experiences necessary to succeed in the workplace. The adults LivItUp serves come from all socioeconomic levels, though statistics show that families with a disabled loved one are twice as likely to live below the poverty line.

Trophies at the Elvis 5k – Credit: Blair Ball Photography

To fund its services, LivItUp holds events such as the Elvis 5k. It’s the only race to start and finish in front of the gates of Graceland — a perfectly “Memphis” location for the homegrown nonprofit. In 2021, the BlueCross Community Trust provided a $2,500 grant to support the Elvis 5k (held virtually because of COVID), and the race saw 1,200 runners from all over the country participate.

“We believe that people with disabilities should be included in every facet of society,” Kelly says, “and through events like the Elvis 5k, we can continue to ensure they will be.”

Moving Day

Parkinson’s Foundation

For a million people in the U.S., Parkinson’s Disease (PD) makes every day a little less certain . The neurologic condition progresses slowly, causing tremors, limb stiffness, instability, slowness and difficulty moving. So it comes as a surprise to many people that the Parkinson’s Foundation’s annual fundraiser, Moving Day, is all about movement.

“Moving Day is more than just a walk,” says Amanda Spiehler, southeast regional director of the Parkinson’s Foundation. “It’s a celebration of movement, which is proven to help manage Parkinson’s symptoms. For Middle Tennessee — where we estimate at least 6,500 people are living with PD — Moving Day is an empowering event that unites people all over the country living with PD, as well as their care partners and loved ones.”

Parkinson’s Moving Day

Moving Day Nashville started in 2017, and it’s one of the largest gatherings of the PD community in Middle Tennessee. In addition to the walk, the event offers multiple fitness demonstrations to help people try new ways of moving. This year’s event also celebrates 4 different types of people who are impacted by PD:

  • A person living with PD
  • A care partner to someone with PD
  • A researcher/doctor treating people with PD, and
  • Someone who has lost a person to PD.

“There are so many different layers involved in a PD diagnosis,” Amanda says. “We’re excited for this opportunity to highlight all the brilliant, courageous people doing that good work.”

Funds from Moving Day Nashville — including $2,500 provided by the BlueCross Community Trust — are used to support the Vanderbilt Parkinson’s Disease Center, a center of excellence in research that also provides wellness outreach such as Rock Steady Boxing and support groups across the area.

Sensory Friendly Concerts

Chattanooga Symphony and Opera

CSO Sensory Friendly Concert

Music is a consummate connector. It brings people together, fosters self-expression, opens minds and unlocks emotion. But what happens when the child you’re trying to reach through music is nonverbal, autistic or has sensory-processing issues?

It’s a challenge the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera (CSO) has faced — and overcome — many times through its Sensory Friendly Concerts. Six years ago, the CSO set out to create a concert series for children of all ages and abilities, and in particular those with sensory-processing issues. They worked with special-education professionals to create an informal atmosphere where clapping, singing and dancing are welcome. And they made sure to select venues with a quiet space nearby in case a child or family needs to take a break.

Now, in its 7th season, the CSO has welcomed more than 840 children and families to more than 25 sensory-friendly concerts .

“We get children of all ages and families of every background,” says Amy Morgan, education and community engagement manager at the CSO. “We have one dad who brings his 18-year-old son, who is nonverbal and autistic. His son rocks and responds to the music, and his dad is always so thrilled to tell us how much he loves it. They come at least once a year.”

At the beginning of a piece, musicians introduce the featured instrument so audience members can listen for that instrument in particular. Throughout the show, kids participate in call-and-response segments where they learn how to clap out a beat. Prior to COVID, there was even an “instrument petting zoo,” where kids could pick up and play with string, brass and percussion instruments and dance along with ribbon wands and shakers during the performance. While that’s currently on hold, the camaraderie the events are meant to foster definitely isn’t.

“My favorite part is seeing these families connecting with each other,” Amy says. “Some have never met a family with a child in the same age group who has a similar disability. Building those bridges is powerful. I like that we’re not just bringing music to the community, but we’re bringing members of the community together.”

The BlueCross Community Trust provided a $4,000 grant to support the CSO’s Sensory Friendly Concerts.

Celebrate Sound Walk

Friends of Tennessee’s Babies with Special Needs

Up to 3 in every 1,000 babies in the U.S. — nearly 1% — are born with hearing loss . By the age of 19, 13% of people will suffer permanent hearing damage from excessive noise exposure.

In Knoxville, Friends of Tennessee’s Babies with Special Needs is working to change that. The nonprofit supports families of children with disabilities and runs a statewide hearing aid loaner bank to distribute digital hearing aids to children in need.

In 2021, the organization will receive support through the Knoxville Sertoma Club’s Celebrate Sound Walk. The one-mile walk aims to raise awareness of noise-induced hearing loss and to raise funds to combat it.

Celebrate Sound Walk

“This walk is a lot of fun, but it also serves an important purpose: sharing the message that noise-induced hearing loss is permanent, but preventable,” says Don Holecek, a Sertoman and chair of this year’s event. “If a noise makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s probably too loud and could result in hearing damage.”

Loud sounds that can harm hearing include gas-powered mowers, snowmobiles, power tools, gunfire and music. Prevent noise-induced hearing damage by limiting exposure to loud sounds, lowering music volume, moving away from loud noise sources and using ear protection.

The BlueCross Community Trust provided a $1,000 grant to support Knoxville’s Celebrate Sound Walk.

E-stim Swallowing Therapy

Bristol Regional Speech & Hearing Center

How many times a day do you swallow? For most people, the answer is up to 700.

Swallowing is a vital function, yet 1 in 25 people will have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)  at some point during their lifetime. Dysphagia is often caused by a traumatic injury to the nervous system, such as stroke, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, etc. People with dysphagia have difficulty moving food from the mouth to the stomach, which can cause symptoms such as choking, drooling, coughing, pain and difficulty breathing.

Allison Doss (left) and Kaitlyn Neill demonstrate a swallowing evaluation

Dysphagia is one condition they treat at the Bristol Regional Speech and Hearing Center (BRSH) in East Tennessee. Today, the center is at the forefront of dysphagia treatment thanks to a $3,000 grant from the BlueCross Community Trust, which they used to purchase a VitalStim electrical stimulation (e-stim) unit. Staff is currently undergoing training and will be offering the new treatment by January 2022.

“E-stim therapy uses an electrical current to stimulate the muscles responsible for swallowing,” says Elaine Rock, executive director of BRSH. “We believe this noninvasive therapy will allow our pathologists to help patients restore function, build strength and remap their swallow.”

As the only FDA-cleared device for treatment of dysphagia, VitalStim is truly cutting-edge in its treatment of swallowing disorders.

“We could not be more excited to improve the lives of people in our region through this innovative therapy,” Elaine says. “And we are extremely grateful to the BlueCross Blue Shield of Tennessee Community Trust for making it a reality.”

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