Vision to Learn brings eye care to Delaware schools

Elena Delle Donne, of WNBA's Chicago Sky, helps fourth-grader Cayleb Reeves try on his new glasses from Vision To Learn.
Elena Delle Donne, of WNBA's Chicago Sky, helps fourth-grader Cayleb Reeves try on his new glasses from Vision To Learn. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

WILMINGTON, DEL. — — When Adriauna Archie takes her turn to read a chapter book aloud in her fourth-grade classroom, she must close her left eye to see the words clearly.

Teachers moved her classmate DeMari Stevens' desk, but DeMari still couldn't read the board at the front of the room. And La'Shyanie Woodard has struggled to see clearly since she broke her glasses during a fire drill last year in the third grade.


But each finally saw things clearly Thursday as they joined three dozen students at Evan G. Shortlidge Academy who received new pairs of free glasses, all shiny in black, blue and purple plastic. Nearly 6,000 other Delaware elementary school students with poor vision but without access to eye care are expected to follow them as the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Vision to Learn takes its mobile eye clinics across the country, starting in the nation's first state.

Vision to Learn already has provided more than 20,000 children with free glasses in California and announced its first step toward a nationwide expansion Thursday in a partnership with Delaware state education and health officials. So far, the nonprofit's efforts have been funded by private donations, but in Delaware, Medicaid reimbursements will cover a portion of the cost of its services offering eye exams and glasses.


The group's leaders hope to replicate the model elsewhere, saying they are in talks in half a dozen other states to bring vision services.

"If you give a kid a pair of glasses, they become a learner, they succeed and they achieve," said Austin Beutner, who founded Vision to Learn in 2012. In August, Beutner was named publisher of the Los Angeles Times, which is owned by Tribune Publishing Co. Tribune also owns The Baltimore Sun.

While philanthropists would be quick to step in if children lacked say, shoes, Beutner said, few realize how frequently they go without needed glasses and other eye care — something that can be a detriment to their education. A study at the University of California, Los Angeles found that students with poor vision had difficulty participating in class, but when they got glasses, their grades improved.

"This is one of those problems that slipped through the cracks," Beutner said.

Vision to Learn officials launched the Delaware efforts alongside Gov. Jack Markell, Sen. Christopher Coons and Elena Delle Donne, a Delaware native and the WNBA's 2013 Rookie of the Year for the Chicago Sky.

In January, Beutner and Coons began discussing bringing one of Vision to Learn's mobile eye clinics to Delaware. The nonprofit's connection to the state was serendipitous: Beutner and Coons were connected by former Los Angeles Controller Wendy Greuel, whose husband was a college classmate of Coons'. Once he heard more about the nonprofit, Coons said he was convinced that Delaware could turn its vision into a reality statewide.

About 35 students at Shortlidge, most of them in the third through fifth grades, were the first to benefit. The group represents about 10 percent of the students at the school, where nearly all children qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a common yardstick for evaluating poverty.

"Everything looks clearer and more light," said Cayleb Reeves-Smith, a diminutive fourth-grader who grinned after putting on his gray plastic spectacles, swimming in a white T-shirt bearing the Vision to Learn logo.

"It's like binoculars or a magnifying glass," third-grader Cayden Hutt said of his black-framed glasses with electric blue arms.

For many of the students, it was their first pair of glasses. A week earlier, the school had its first visit from Vision to Learn's van, decorated with smiling, bespectacled children on the outside and containing the same equipment, plush chair and white cabinets you would find in an eye doctor's office. The van, which will make its way across schools in predominantly poor Delaware neighborhoods over the coming months, is staffed by an optician and an optometrist.

For other students, it was a rare chance to get a stronger prescription or replace a broken pair of glasses.

Delores Harris said her daughter, third-grader Maresha, needs a new pair of glasses every year or two, at a cost of about $100. But Maresha was able to pick out a new pair of purple-framed glasses when Vision to Learn visited.


"I appreciate it very much," Delores Harris said. "Do they give the parents a pair?" she joked.

Vision to Learn is one of many groups that offer eye exams and glasses to the needy. A New Jersey nonprofit called New Eyes for the Needy says it has improved the eyesight of more than 8 million people since it was founded in 1932, while a charity called Sight for Students, run by eye care company VSP Global, says it performs 50,000 free eye exams each year and provides free glasses when needed.

Yet there remains unmet need: Vision to Learn officials estimate about 2 million children need glasses but can't get them.

Officials would not say if Maryland is among the states they might expand to next. But Baltimore school officials said they would welcome the group's help. A 2010 Abell Foundation study found that in the 2009-2010 school year, 12 percent of city schoolchildren who were given vision tests failed, but only 17 percent of those students who needed follow-up eye care documented receiving it.

"If we're only doing the assessment, that's only getting us halfway there," said Karen Webber-Ndour, executive director of student support and safety for Baltimore City public schools.

"There's great interest in doing something like this," she said of Vision to Learn's services.

In two years, Vision to Learn has visited 400 schools across California, performing eye exams on 25,000 children, providing 20,000 pairs of glasses. The nonprofit received $940,000 in donations and incurred $833,000 in expenses in 2013, according to tax forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

It also referred 3,000 students to other medical care. Along the way, the nonprofit has come across children who carried magnifying glasses to see properly. Others had cataracts, glaucoma or amblyopia, also known as lazy eye.

Organizers said they hope the services are an easy sell. While school systems across the country may be mired in debates over union issues or curriculum concerns, ensuring students have the vision they need to perform well in school should be a uniting issue, Beutner said.

Glasses for students who need them are vital for improving achievement, the organizers said.

"They'll make your path clearer," Coons said.


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