MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Vision to Learn is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students see things clearly.
Its mission is to ensure that kids have the opportunity to succeed in the classroom by offering free vision screenings and eyeglass distribution at local schools.
According to Vision to Learn, as many as 20% students in Los Angeles Unified School District elementary schools have untreated vision problems. The organization found that when children are unable to see the chalkboard or their schoolwork, it dramatically impacts their learning. Some children with poor vision are labeled “disruptive” or “learning disabled,” or even diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.
With 20% of students having untreated vision problems, Shambria Williams, the organization’s director of operations was asked if somebody dropped the ball.
“It’s not about who dropped the ball,” she said. “There are a lot of variables at play. The way the system is set up, the school district is required or mandated to screen kindergarten, second, fifth and eighth-grade students. Each school district has a different mandate. They are then supposed to identify vision issues.”
Williams said since she has been at Vision to Learn, the number of nurses in schools has dwindled, which in turn affects the process.
“There are very few nurses in schools,” she said. “That begs the question, who is identifying the need and getting the services to the kids. Nurses send letters home that say ‘Your child can’t see.’ But for a whole host of reasons, … kids don’t get the eye exams they need. Sometimes you can’t even find an optometrist in certain neighborhoods. Once again, it’s not who dropped the ball. It can be a whole host of things.”
Williams said students in Title 1 schools are covered by medical insurance, but some parents can’t access the services, leaving the child’s vision impaired.
“Isn’t it interesting, you don’t know you can’t see because that’s what you’ve seen your whole life,” Williams said.
Vision To Learn, founded in 2012 by business leader and philanthropist Austin Beutner (now the LAUSD superintendent) and his wife, Virginia, provides free vision exams and free glasses to elementary school students in Los Angeles’ low-income communities. The organization provides glasses to an estimated 20,000-40,000 children.
Williams, 32, explained how the program works.
“As a nonprofit, we offer free vision care to kids that includes vision screening and free prescriptions for eyeglasses,” Williams said. “The criteria we use to determine how great the need is for free eyeglasses is through a school’s free or reduced lunch program.”
Before going into a school, Williams secures a partnership with the school district through a memorandum of understanding that outlines the responsibilities of her organization and the district. She asks for someone from the district to work with her in securing a particular school.
Typical district responsibilities include coordinating consent forms for exams and escorting kids from the classroom to the mobile clinic. The program begins with vision screenings for all students, utilizing medically appropriate tools.
“We partner with principals and local nurses to make sure the kids have the info they need,” Williams said. “We all have to make sure the parents return the paperwork. One of the biggest challenges is parent consent forms being returned. A lot of kids at some schools need eyeglasses, but because the form wasn’t returned, they don’t get the glasses. It’s a challenge we face every day.”
Once the partnership has been established, Williams said Vision to Learn goes into a school and provides vision screening for everyone. Students who need further screenings are then referred to a mobile clinic where they will receive additional screenings.
The organization has about nine mobile clinics and is currently operating six of them.
“We bring the doctor and optician to the students,” Williams said. “The kids don’t have to leave school. We pay for the doctors to conduct eye exams.”
Once the exam is complete, students are given the opportunity to pick out the frames of their glasses the same day.
“We like them to take ownership of the glasses,” Williams said. “That way they are more likely to wear them.”
About three to four weeks after the screening, Vision to Learn brings the glasses to the students and gives them information on the warranty.
“If they break or lose their glasses, we will replace them,” said Williams, a Pomona native. “It’s a one-year guarantee. Sometimes we give a child a second pair of glasses. Our goal is to make sure kids can see and can perform well and have tools to succeed in life.”
Vision to Learn, which focuses on LAUSD, but is hoping to include schools in Inglewood, operates five days a week. There are six mobile clinics working every day as well. Each mobile clinic can see 25-35 kids a day, which, on average, is about 1,000 per week.
“We are a year-round program,” Williams said. “During the summer, we open our services up to more community partners. We partner with Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA summer camps to make sure our clinics are providing the needed services.”
Nationally, Vision to Learn serves children in more than 200 cities in 10 states and has provided 500,000 kids with vision screenings, 100,000 kids with an eye exam, and 80,000 kids with glasses.
“To date, we have served 51,000 kids and identified that 30,000 are failing vision screenings,” said Williams, who began with the organization in 2015 as an administrator before becoming director of operations in 2016-17.
To Williams, the work Vision to Learn does is important and rewarding.
“Folks don’t realize how much being able to see can impact a kid’s life,” she said. “The number of kids we’ve identified can all see the world differently now. I enjoy being able to see in real-time a kid putting on glasses for the first time. Seeing that wow moment is priceless. We’re changing the stigma.”
Williams said the stigma surrounding glasses still persists.
“Some kids used to think it was nerdy,” she said. “Some kids don’t want to wear them because they don’t think it’s cool. That’s one of the reasons why we partner with sports figures and celebrities to talk about wearing glasses.”
Vision to Learn has public-private partnerships that include the Clippers Foundation, Golden State Warriors, San Jose Sharks, Dodgers Foundation and the San Diego Padres.
The work, Williams said, is “impactful.”
“Some kids have said, ‘I didn’t know leaves had stems on them,’ or that they had texture,” said Williams. “They see the world differently for the first time. That is all the reward I need.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Darlene Donloe