Some teens borrow glasses from family members to make it through the school day. Others duct tape or glue what’s left of their old pairs. One teen’s glasses were so in tatters he held the lens up to his face, using it like a monocle.
Many kids just go without.
Now, ChildSight Minnesota is helping thousands of these Twin Cities teens see more clearly by providing free eye screenings, exams and glasses.
“They know they have vision issues, but they also know it’s very expensive to get glasses,” said Liz Johnston, ChildSight Minnesota program manager. “In the list of priorities, it’s always food and rent first. Eye glasses can fall through the cracks.”
ChildSight, the domestic division of the international nonprofit Helen Keller International, started operations in Minnesota last fall. So far, they’ve screened 2,500 middle and high school students in St. Paul Public Schools and provided 670 pairs of free glasses.
They are expanding into Minneapolis Public Schools this month.
They hope to screen 10,000 students in a year’s time in school districts where a high number of students qualify for free and reduced lunches.
“We are thrilled they are here. It’s a great partnership to have,” said Mary Yackley, St. Paul Public Schools supervisor of student health and wellness.
It’s not always a money issue. Sometimes parents don’t know their child has a vision problem.
Yet, not being able to see clearly can leave students frustrated and falling behind.
“Vision is one of the first ways children access learning,” Yackley said. “If they’ve never had good visual acuity, they don’t know what they are missing and their parents don’t know what they are missing.”
ChildSight’s efforts complement the work already being done by Allina Health’s Phillips Eye Institute, which screens about 27,000 elementary and middle schools students in Minneapolis and St. Paul each year.
That program, funded through Phillips Eye Institute Foundation, provide exams, eyeglasses and additional care all the way to surgeries and prosthetic eyes free of charge.
“We have been working together since they made the decision to come to the Twin Cities,” said Cheryle Atkin, Phillips’ community program supervisor.
“We have the same goal and mission as them. It’s to remove vision problems as a roadblock to learning. We just want the children to be able to see, learn, be productive in their lives and reach their full potential.”
Nearly 80 percent of early childhood learning takes place through vision, according to the Phillips Eye Institute, the second largest eye specialty hospital by patient volume in the country.
“Vision care strengthens educational attainment and future success,” Johnston said. “It affects your comprehension. It affects your focus.”
Julie and Phil GebbenGreen said they were grateful when ChildSight staff screened their 13-year-old daughter, Lydia, and outfitted her with a new pair of glasses.
“She is definitely seeing better now,” said Julie GebbenGreen. “For us, it was this gift of community support.”
ChildSight operates in seven large American cities and has screened 2 million people since it was launched in 1994, said Meghan Lynch, director of ChildSight U.S.
Funding from Minnesota-based Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies allowed ChildSight to expand to Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The Essilor Vision Foundation is also providing prescription lenses free of charge and offering discounted manufacturing costs.
Trained staff conduct the initial ChildSight vision screenings. Students flagged with possible vision problems then see an optometrist at school. Glasses are then delivered and fitted to the child’s face at school.
Phillips also provides services in the schools. When students need to be seen at a clinic, Phillips provides transportation.
“The barrier of needing to leave school for an eye appointment and then go back to have the glasses fitted has been removed,” Yackley said. “The amount of time kids miss school is minutes vs. portions of days.”
Students who need glasses choose from dozens of frames selected each year to reflect the latest fashion trends. That ensures the teens will actually wear them.
“I want to be very clear they are very cute glasses,” Lynch said.
These days, children and teens view glasses as a stylish accessory, making it easier to persuade youngsters to wear them.
“Glasses are having a moment,” Atkin said. “Students have their own style and they want glasses to fit their style.”
Yackley said she recently observed as ChildSight staff fitted students with their new glasses.
“Many of the students broke into smiles when they saw their own reflection,” she said. “They were wearing frames that were flattering to them — and they could see their own reflection.”