It was 2003 and former President Jimmy Carter was speaking at a national optometry conference in Atlanta.
Sitting in the audience that day was Sarah Fratesi, who was just starting her career as an optometrist at the Crigler Family Vision Center in Starkville.
Fratesi was both disturbed and inspired by the story Carter told that day.
“He said two of his six grandchildren came to school with undiagnosed visual impairment,” Fratesi recalls. “The family had no idea. I thought, ‘How can that be? If the children of a former president’s family can slip through the cracks, what about the rest of us? ‘ “
Of all the things she heard at that conference, Carter’s personal story resonated with her the most.
“It was almost like a challenge,” she said. “Do something.”
When the American Optometric Association in 2005 launched “InfantSEE” – a free eye screening program for children aged six to 12 months, Fratesi had found a way to meet this challenge.
For more than 15 years, Fratesi has organized InfantSEE screenings at health fairs, clinics and by appointment in Crigler.
“I have no idea how many screenings I’ve done,” she said.
It was certainly enough to attract attention.
Earlier this month, Fratesi received a national award from the American Optometric Association for his work in the program, but his volunteer work extends far beyond InfantSEE.
She also hosts screenings as part of Starkville’s Excel by 5 program and the public school district’s third-grade reading initiative, offering free eye exams and glasses to children in need. She is a member of the Starkville Rotary Club, chair of the activities committee and member of the Between the Lions committee, and has volunteered as a class reader for a local daycare.
The Mississippi state graduate also offers eye screening to MSU athletes.
When her church, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, approached her to sit on the parish council, her answer was familiar: yes.
Fratesi and her husband, Joe, have three children: Nate, 13; Caleb, 11; and Leah, 7. As a working mother with three active children, Fratesi is always very inclined to say yes, an attitude that has only been reinforced since her mother passed away in June, a loss that reminded her of her own mortality.
“It used to be ‘I don’t think I can do that’ when someone approached me,” Fratesi said. “But after my mother died, I had a kind of mental change. I am 44 years old now. It’s one of those things. You realize that it is time to help more. Nobody gets out of here alive, so what do you want to leave behind?
Fratesi is grateful to Crigler for giving her the flexibility to do her volunteer work while remaining active in her children’s lives.
“Crigler is very family oriented,” she said. “I am able to organize and reorganize my work schedule according to what is going on. It makes a huge difference. “
Fratesi said she learned that “I’m busy” is often more of an excuse than a reason to say no.
“I think you can always find something that you can plug into your existing schedule,” she said. “You can always find a way to help, whether it’s your time or your money. There is almost always a way to help.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature film writer for The Dispatch. His e-mail address is [email protected]