WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
The bustle of Dr. Michael Mackie’s morning had already roared into full throttle several years ago as he popped in and out of exam rooms caring for patients seeking treatment from a kaleidoscope of ocular diseases to dry eyes. While focused on his intense daily juggle, an unexpected visitor breezed through the doors at Eye Center Inc., baring a beautiful gift that served as a heart-warmer and eye-opener for this Bradenton optometrist.
Head nurse for the School District of Manatee County at the time, Sue Troxler placed a thick scrapbook before him. Carefully flipping the pages as if it was a coveted book revealing a vital story, Mackie, who practices alongside his wife and fellow optometrist Dr. Sarah Mackie, smiled as years of charitable work unfolded before him. Pictures of underprivileged Manatee County children sporting glasses and wide, toothy grins stared back at him. Thoughtful, hand-written thank-you notes from these kids adorned the pages. Without the Mackies’ in-kind eye exams and glasses, these students might still be fidgeting at their desks struggling to see the board – struggling to learn and grasp opportunity. “After seeing this scrapbook, Sarah and I looked at each other and realized we were making a difference in our community, but we also realized we could make it better,” said Michael Mackie, a Bradenton native who knows the local waterways like the back of his hand. “This book inspired us to do more. What started as giving back to our community growing in an organic way, evolved into something better.”
Passionate about helping others, especially children who might not otherwise be able to afford the treatment they need, the Mackies created the Eye Center Inc. Vision Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to providing eye care and glasses to underprivileged Manatee County children. In addition, the Vision Foundation provides free glasses to Turning Points, whose mission is to provide, coordinate, and facilitate services to the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless throughout Manatee County. With eye-catching statistics from the state, the Vision Foundation helps fill a desperate void in the community. According to a report released by the Florida Department of Health in 2017, a large number of students who fail vision-screening tests in Sarasota and Manatee counties continue to miss critical information and squint to see the board.
Nearly 75 percent of the roughly 800 Manatee County students who need eye care continue to attend class without glasses or with outdated prescriptions, the report states. While two state-funded programs – Florida Heiken Children’s Vision Program and Florida’s Vision Quest – help get glasses to children in need, they only serve uninsured students. “We realized there was a need and we could make a real impact if we started a foundation to take it to the next level,” said Michael Mackie who admits Sarah is the real workhorse behind the foundation. “We see a number of children each year who need more than what we can give them. Sometimes they need surgery and need to see a specialist. The Foundation helps offset the costs for them.” A teenager recently absorbed the shock of a cataracts diagnosis and needed a crucial, but costly cataracts surgery that would have weighed a heavy financial burden on the family. The Vision Foundation secured funding for not only the surgery, but also related medical expenses including follow-up care at no cost to the family.
The Mackies have observed an amazing power of giving and a domino effect of charity. “We have found that many of the specialists we work with don’t even bill us for their services,” said Sarah Mackie, a North Carolina native who relishes long runs through Emerson Preserve and cheering on UNC basketball. “Many just give from the heart.”
They don’t really know which kids scattered across Manatee County schools are truly in need of their in-kind services and rely heavily on the people who do: school nurses. “The nurses are the ones who really know the kids,” said Michael Mackie. “They know who is in need. They know the families. We give them vouchers for our services to then disperse to those they feel can really use them. We let them do all the vetting. And then it is no questions asked – no questions asked at all on our end.”
Often clues a child might need an eye exam lie in poor performance at school. Spearheading a three-year pilot program analyzing the relationship between vision and reading scores in Baltimore schools in 2017, Professor Robert Slavin of John Hopkins University’s School of Education and his team discovered remarkable increases in scores for students who received needed glasses. “If you can’t see, you can’t learn,” said Sarah Mackie. “And if you can’t learn, you may act out with disruptive behavior. So many kids have many issues on their plates that we can’t fix. This is one we can. Nobody wants to see a kid suffer.”
Drawn to kids, like a high school student who resorted to snapping pictures of the board, so he could review it later because he needed glasses, the Mackie’s discovered this young man was also struggling to play his beloved game: soccer. Through the Vision Foundation, the couple not only got him a set of glasses for school, but also sport goggles for the field.
When the Mackies are not advocating for their community or seeing patients, they seize the opportunity to detach from the city hustle and embrace the outdoors with their two elementary-aged daughters. Escaping to their cabin home on Lake Okeechobee, they leave behind phones, Wi-Fi, and antennae and gain jigsaw puzzles boasting thousands of pieces, gator watching, airboat rides, and intense family matches of Monopoly. “If we have to stop a Monopoly game, we’ve been known to take a picture of the board, so we can continue the next time,” said Michael Mackie with a chuckle. Bonding extends to friends and neighbors at the lake home where the Mackies famously fly in 50 pounds of crawfish from Louisiana for crawfish boils.
“One daughter will eat them until her lips are cracked and burning,” said Michael Mackie who also carves out fishing and snow skiing trips for his family. “The other daughter won’t touch them.”
When Mondays (the Mackies’ day off from work) roll around, you’ll probably find Michael Mackie in the kitchen by 2 p.m., flipping through a cookbook and mapping out a culinary adventure. Barbeque, black-eyed peas, and collard greens. Spanish food and Cajun food. Welcoming scents from sizzling recipes permeate the house while the family chef works his magic and creative outlet to craft a meal the family can gather around. “Lasagna is a family favorite,” said Sarah Mackie, her chocolate-brown eyes smiling. “I’m there to offer support and taste testing and keep company.” Sarah Mackie, who has an identical twin sister, finds peace and renewed energy through running. She has tackled half-marathon races alongside her sister and often takes her passion outside, discovering meandering routes through nature while contemplating.
Through example, she hopes her daughters will cultivate a deep-rooted drive to give back to their community. “I think they see it as the normal to give back,” she said. “My dad always wanted to instill in his girls manners, respect, and philanthropy. I hope to instill this in our girls.”
Between the two, Michael and Sarah Mackie have worked tirelessly on a long and breathless list of organizations including: Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Hope Family Services, the Junior League of Manatee County, Coastal Conservation Association of Manatee County, Just For Girls, and the Bradenton Yacht Club. In addition, Michael Mackie recently wrapped up a six-year term serving on the board of trustees for the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, and he is currently chairman of the Manatee County chapter of Ducks Unlimited.
Sarah Mackie adds their daughters have grown up watching the community pour support into the Vision Foundation, which thrives on generous donors and their yearly fundraiser, Beertopia. Unfolding annually in February, Beertopia invites local restaurants to pair cuisine with craft beer and wine to raise money for the foundation. Live music, a silent auction, and raffle items fill the night. “It’s a really great time,” said Sarah Mackie who explained all six doctors at Eye Center Inc. support and help with the Vision Foundation. “We have a lot of fun raising money for the children of Manatee County.”
For the Mackies, every smile they share with a child who can suddenly see better and perform better at school keeps them driving to strengthen the Vision Foundation. Walking through the halls of their own kids’ school on a recent morning, a teacher bee-lined for Sarah Mackie and enthusiastically waved her down to thank her for helping a little boy at the school get much needed glasses. “The teacher told me he was a new kid,” Sarah Mackie said. “She said he had a new swagger, a new confidence about him. It’s not a big story to share, but it really stands out to me. This is the reason why we do what we do.”