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Students see new horizons, thanks to free glasses

Partnership with national nonprofit will help thousands of students

After putting on the new glasses he received through Vision To Learn, Aberdeen School seventh-grader Frederick Charles had much to say about his new look.

Kent County Health Department is a proud sponsor of SNN
Kent County Health Department is a proud sponsor of SNN

“My grades will go way up,” he said. “I’ll get back to A’s. Everything will be easier to read in school.”

Just like 21 other students at Aberdeen, a PK-8 school, he recently got new glasses to fit an updated prescription, thanks to a new school district partnership aimed at improving vision for up to 3,000 students. The generosity was not lost on him.

Organization brings sight to children in need

Vision To Learn started with one van in Los Angeles in 2012 and now helps serve children in low-income communities in over 300 cities in 12 states. It serves the needs of the hardest-to-reach children; about 90 percent of kids served by Vision To Learn live in poverty and about 85 percent are children of color.

About one in five students will naturally need glasses to see the board, read a book or participate in class, according to the VTL website. Unfortunately, in low-income communities across the country, 95 percent of kids who need glasses (about 2 million) do not have them.

Since its inception, the program has helped provide vision screenings to over 800,000 kids, eye exams for over 170,000 and glasses for 135,000, all free of charge to students and their families.

Research by faculty from the Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA, about students who received glasses from Vision To Learn, showed the students’ grades improved and they were more engaged in the classroom. Students with untreated vision problems often struggle at school, and they are less likely to achieve reading proficiency by third grade, putting them at greater risk of dropping out.

Locally, Joann Hoganson, community wellness director for the Kent County Health Department, said the department’s nine full-time technicians screen children for vision deficits. But their rate of helping families afford the glasses for children who need them is “embarrassingly low,” a problem the partnership will greatly reduce, she said.

“The Health Department’s primary role is to identify children who potentially need further visual care and then to come alongside the parents in order to secure treatment,” Hoganson said. “While every effort is made to make sure the children get the follow-up they need, some children are not able to get the glasses they need, even when the parent knows the child has a vision deficit. New options such as VTL help us accomplish this important goal in a more efficient manner.”

The Health Department’s hearing and vision technicians screened a total of 93,000 children for potential hearing and visual deficits last year, according to Hoganson. Of that amount, 53,934 were screened for vision, 4,920 were identified as having potential visual problems and referred on for care, and 2,070 of those referred children received an eye examination.

“It’s amazing,” Frederick added. “It’s a real blessing. People are nice enough to give us glasses. We really need them.”

His mother, Vernee Pearson, would be thrilled, too, he predicted: “She’s going to be so excited when I get home. I can’t wait to see her reaction.”

He couldn’t have been more correct. His mom said she hasn’t seen that excitement in his eyes in a long time.

I was excited to see that he was excited,” Pearson said, about three weeks after the glasses give-away. “He has been more delightful at home. I see a big difference and it’s been such a relief for him. He is able to study the way he needs to.”

Removing Barriers to Learning

In collaboration with Grand Rapids Public Schools and the Kent County Health Department, nonprofit organization Vision To Learn launched its program at Aberdeen and plans to roll it out to all 50 GRPS schools.

Aberdeen Principal Jamie Masco said her students were thrilled to get those glasses, and she’s thrilled by the initiative.

“They felt like real superstars when they were called up to the podium to receive their glasses,” Masco said. “They were grinning from ear to ear. I am grateful and honored that Vision To Learn chose to begin their journey at Aberdeen School and that other GRPS students will benefit from this amazing organization.

Besides being stars for the day, the students should see significant learning gains by getting vision screenings, eye exams and prescription eyeglasses, she added:  In today’s world, it is imperative that we remove as many barriers as possible in order to ensure academic and social-emotional success for our students.”

At Aberdeen, 174 students received vision screenings, 35 got eye exams, and 22 students were provided glasses. According to Joann Hoganson, community wellness director for the Kent County Health Department, a screening is a number of tests designed to determine whether a student should be referred for a professional examination.

An examination is when a series of tests are performed by an ophthalmologist or optometrist, assessing the vision and ability to focus on and discern objects, as well as other tests pertaining to the eyes.

Program has Local Roots

The charity’s founder, Austin Beutner, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, grew up in Grand Rapids and pegged his hometown as a place to help. His mom was a teacher here, according to Vision To Learn President Ann Hollister, who said the 1978 East Grand Rapids High School graduate wanted to make sure Grand Rapids had this program.

An estimated 3,000 children in Grand Rapids go to school daily without the glasses they need to see the board, read a book or participate in class. Through this collaboration, every student in GRPS will be provided a vision screening, eye exam, and, if needed, a pair of glasses, free of charge.

“Children who have trouble seeing often struggle in class, yet many students lack access to basic vision care,” Hollister said. “By bringing free eye exams to kids at school, Vision To Learn helps them get the glasses they need to succeed.”

Aberdeen School fourth-grader Ariana White is clearly pleased to receive a new pair of glasses from GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal

A Game Changer’

GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal called the partnership “a game changer” for those children and families, adding that she expects the program to benefit students throughout the school system.

“Imagine being in school, not having glasses, not being able to see, not having the resources to get those glasses,” Neal said. “Now we will be able to have this barrier removed thanks to our partnership with Vision To Learn.

“It’s rare that a single intervention can make such an immediate and meaningful difference in a student’s education. Through this program, students who need glasses will get glasses, and as a result, they are more likely to do better at school.”

Frederick’s mom said she has seen evidence of that already.

Fifth-grader Jack Klein makes no secret of his new-glasses glee after getting a pair from Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, thanks to the Vision To Learn initiative

“He hasn’t been acting up in school like he has been in the past,” Pearson said. “I think the lack of him being able to see played a lot to his behavioral issues and I believe he got bored and started acting out. Since his glasses, I haven’t had any phone calls or anything of that nature. It’s pretty awesome.”

Pearson also said he has been very responsible with his glasses.

“He has been keeping up with them, cleaning them and keeping them in the case … and keeping them away from his little brother.”

Charles Honey contributed to this story


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Second-grader Jeckia Brooks gets a high-five from school board member Tony Baker, right, and Vision To Learn President Ann Hollister, center, and encouragement from Joann Hoganson, community wellness director for the Kent County Health Department
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Cris Greer
Cris Greer
For more than three decades, Cris Greer has been a wordsmith, working in the fields of journalism, advertising and marketing. Much of the past decade, he helped grow the MLive Statewide High School Sports desk as a supervisor, editor and reporter, which included eight newspapers in Michigan and mlive.com. Cris also was a freelancer for The Grand Rapids Press, The Advance and On the Town magazine for many years. A good portion of his early career was spent building and managing the copywriting team in the advertising department at Meijer, Inc., where he oversaw copywriting for print ads, mailers, brochures, signage, several dozen in-house magazines per year and much more.


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