From small-town to big deal

September 16, 2019
Honoring optometric staff this Paraoptometric Week, which drives recognition of paraoptometry as a profession that hinges on the strength of paraoptometric members as well as the support of doctors of optometry and other care providers.
Melanie Jenkins, CPO

Melanie Jenkins, CPO

When Rob Szeliga, O.D., opened his office cold out of optometry school 13 years ago, he was grateful for the support of family who worked in his new Tennessee practice. Later, after "stumbling" through with staff who came and went, he hired Melanie Jenkins.

Dr. Szeliga hasn't looked back. Neither has Jenkins, CPO.

Melanie Jenkins, CPO

Photo by Cary Norton

At the time, Jenkins had come highly recommended but had no prior experience working at an optometric practice. She had a pleasant personality and was eager to learn. She started as a paraoptometric technician. Today, she is a testament to hard work. And Dr. Szeliga's practice has grown to 11 employees, two full-time and two part-time doctors of optometry.

On her own, she researched ways to improve her techniques and attended continuing education. To surprise Dr. Szeliga, she earned her CPO. Last year, she passed the office manager certification course offered through the University of Houston School of Optometry. Along the way, she took on more responsibility in the practice. Today she is office manager and jane-of-all-jobs.

"I never thought I could replace my family, but Melanie has truly become a part of my family and continuously ensures that our office still has that hometown family feel," Dr. Szeliga wrote in a nominating letter.

"She is worth more than I could ever afford in salary. She is as dedicated and loyal as they come."

Jenkins is the AOA's 2019 Paraoptometric of the Year. In a Q&A with AOA Focus, she explains what motivates her.

You're a self-starter. How did you earn your CPO certification?

In my first year as a technician, we attended our state optometric meeting. I had been working about eight months at the time. I was amazed at all the paraoptometrics who attended, their knowledge and the enthusiasm they showed for the profession. I had the privilege of attending classes by (national lecturer) Lynn Lawrence. He spoke with such passion and conviction about the optometry profession as a paraoptometric. He challenged us to be the very best we could be, never stop learning and shared how to begin certification. I ordered study materials when I got home. I would study in the evenings and read, read, read. After completing the CPO, I was moved into the office manager position. I again sought training to be the best office manager I could be and found the office manager certification program through the University of Houston's College of Optometry.

How has getting your certification changed your career?

Being certified has increased my confidence in studying for both certifications; I learned so much about optometry, staff management and human resources. I believe having the knowledge and confidence has helped me grow as a professional in my career.

What do you like most about working in optometry?

As an office manager, there are lots of things I get to do-from payroll to filing insurance to staff meeting management, etc. I like the variety. Most of all, I like the doctors, staff and patients I get to be with and know personally. Sight is so often taken for granted. None of us would want to lose the ability to see. By educating the public more of how important eye health is, I believe we would see a greater surge into this field. What a difference we make daily!

You are known for your creative community service projects. Why are you so committed to serving the community?

My roots are in small communities and knowing the people, the families. I grew up in a small town where neighbors helped neighbors. My parents have always modeled serving and giving in their small town, and I grew up knowing what giving back looked like. When we are involved in our community, we are real. We're not just a brick-and-mortar building. We are people who care and want to make a difference. My heart grows a little bigger and softer every time we're out there.

Celebrate Paraoptometric Week

Paraoptometric Week, Sept. 16-20, sponsored by Alcon, is an annual opportunity to recognize paraoptometrics for the value they contribute to the success of optometric practices. As the only formal observance in the nation specifically intended to honor optometric practice staff, Paraoptometric Week drives recognition of paraoptometry as a profession that hinges on the strength of paraoptometric members as well as the support of doctors of optometry and other care providers.

Observed annually during the third week of September by AOA's Paraoptometric Resource Center, Paraoptometric Week gives doctors of optometry a chance to not only show appreciation but also enroll staff as AOA associate members and encourage them on a path toward paraoptometric certification.

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