Chelsea Elliott bridges the eye care gap.
By Molly Jo Tilton, Photos by Anna Monette Photography
When Chelsea Elliott began half Helen at just 22, she had no idea the reach her new organization would eventually have. Over the past 10 years, the organization has grown from a small one-woman show providing early-detection screenings and outside referrals, to a full-service eye clinic on wheels serving underserved children and adults throughout the Austin community.
At the age of 4, an eye exam at her preschool revealed that Elliott was blind in one eye. Over the next few days, she visited multiple doctors who were able to determine the cause: Coats disease, an illness that settled in her eye and caused her blindness. Eventually, her eye would need to be removed and replaced with a prosthetic. An unrelated illness would later cause her to lose hearing in one ear.
“When I learned about Helen Keller and all of her exceptional deeds, I very boldly declared that I was half blind and half deaf—like half Helen,” Elliott says. “I never dreamed a childhood nickname would come to characterize my life’s purpose.”
half Helen in Action
Now, her organization uses spot vision screeners to provide preliminary vision screenings in schools that can detect nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism and two common causes of blindness. They also provide comprehensive eye exams to the students that need them and adults throughout the community, as well as prescription glasses, all at no cost to the families.
“Had this device been around when I was a kid, it could have identified my vision loss sooner,” she says. “I didn’t want something that could have been prevented to stop a child from living their fullest life.”
Elliott recalls the first few years of half Helen being rough. She didn’t know how to create a company, but she had help from her family. Once she got her feet on the ground, she moved on to networking, where she was often met with awed skepticism.
“‘What’s a 22-year-old kid know about eye health and screening? And more importantly, why should we put our faith in her?’ There was this constant age battle,” she says. “At every networking event or funder meeting I went to, I was always the youngest person in the room. Thankfully, my story helped open a lot of doors.”
Elliott was fortunate that she had a lot of good mentors to support her along the way. “Advice has been framed to me as options versus just directives. That’s helped me grow as a leader because options are opportunities.”
The Trials of Running a Nonprofit
But running a nonprofit isn’t easy. As her organization expanded, challenges arose along the way. The equipment they used had no way to digitize reports, so Elliott built an app to do that. Then the providers that they referred patients to closed down, so they brought the care to the schools. When the pandemic hit and they could no longer enter schools, they built a mobile clinic to encase a full-service clinic with all the equipment needed to perform the exams.
“It’s rewarding to know that we can make such profound differences,” she says. “It’s that sense of hope, that inspiration that I think fuels me for doing this work. Because it’s such a powerful and simple problem to solve.”
Filling the Eye Care Gap
In solving these problems, half Helen fills the gaps in care that so many Austinites face.
“For the kids that we see, we’re largely their first and only access to eye care,” she says. “If half Helen didn’t exist, our patients wouldn’t get care.”
And they have no plans of slowing down. The organization is in the process of adding a new mobile clinic that will be able to serve adult patients year-round. Elliott anticipates adding more in the future to serve even more people in Central Texas.
Though Elliott herself admitted that these are ambitious goals, she wholly believes in the work they are doing.
“As someone who lives [with]that small sense of fear, knowing that everything on my left side can’t see and never will see, and that we can actually prevent that from happening with a simple eye exam, makes all of the challenges of running an organization worth it.”