For millions of American schoolchildren, vision problems pose a serious challenge to their education. That challenge is especially great for low-income families who can't afford the high cost of eye exams and eyeglass prescriptions. Over the past decade, Childsight, a domestic program run by the Helen Keller International organization, has been addressing this concern by offering free eye screening to more than 800,000 children in many of America's poorest school districts, and then making sure they get the eyeglasses they need to read and succeed academically.
The school day has just begun at Middle School Number Eight in Jersey City, New Jersey, and already, 20 or so children, ages 11 to 14, are waiting in the school auditorium for an eye exam and, if necessary, the optometrist's prescription for eyeglasses. These services are all free of charge.
Kindal Beckley, Childsight's state coordinator, says that this school is typical of those designated as "needy or under-served." "They have a large enrollment number, and they also have a large amount of children that fail here," she says, "so when we come here today, we have 110 children to see, which is really a long day for us."
Optometrist Edward Kaplan, who set up his instruments on a scratched wooden desk, does seem ready for the long haul. He leans in toward a young Latino pupil and points to an eye chart about 6 meters away. It's clear that the girl needs reading glasses, and school principal Marisa Migliozzi wants to make sure she gets them, just as her students have for the previous 4 years thanks to Childsight.
"If they can see, they can read and if they can read, they can learn," she says. "And if they can learn, they will be successful in life. That only could be good!"
Getting children's eyes checked and fitting them with new glasses is easy for most middle class Americans. But for the estimated 17% of American children who live in poverty, proper vision care is often out of reach. Nicholas Kourgialis, vice president of Childsight, says that that's true whether they live in the inner city or the countryside.
In many rural areas, he says "getting there may be a huge obstacle, if there is no public transportation. So we try to eliminate all the barriers and make sure the child gets the assistance they need."
Coordinator Kindal Beckley says Childsight has also helped the parents of children in Jersey City's diverse immigrant families. Many have failed to deal with their children's vision problems, because they don't have health insurance. Ms. Beckley says, "When they get the letter saying 'the eyeglasses people are coming,' they're excited!"
Sometimes, teenagers themselves stand in the way of getting the eyeglasses they need, believing them to be "uncool." One strategy for dealing with such vanity has been to offer kids a wide choice in frames.
Childsight's Sabrina Jones fondly remembers one girl who did not want glasses, even though the tests showed she had terrible eyesight. "She went to see the doctor, he prescribed her a pair of glasses, and she put the glasses on and said, 'Oh, my God! I can see the flag! I can see the bleachers!' 'I really needed glasses. I didn't know!' "She felt very good," says Ms. Jones, adding, "that makes you happy. You feel like you've done some justice for the child."