Program aims to improve the lives of needy children one pair of eyeglasses at a time.Citlalli Miranda, dressed in a gray sweater vest over a white blouse with red tie and red-plaid skirt, was smiling. 

She had just come from the long RV converted to the Vision to Learn mobile eye clinic. Decorated with color photos of kids wearing glasses reading and doing school work, it was parked on this late May morning in the lower asphalt playground of Immaculate Conception School. The background of looming glass-and-steel high rise buildings against a cloudless blue sky looked like it had been ordered by L.A.’s chamber of commerce.

The 10-year-old fifth-grader, who’d just had her eyes examined by an optician and optometrist, said the best part was picking out the brown swordfish-like frames she’d be wearing soon. Moreover, Citlalli would now be able to clearly read what was up on the computer-generated “smart board” screen as well as the more traditional white boards in her classroom of the urban parochial school. 

“I told my parents last year, like, I couldn’t really see from far away,” she recalled. “But they were like: ‘Oh, you’re just saying that because you want to get glasses.’ But when we took the exam last week, I only got a score of 15 out of 25 right.”

The student believes wearing glasses will help her a lot with her schoolwork. 

“Yes, because I will actually pay more attention and know what’s on the board,” she pointed out. “So I won’t have to miss out on things. So I’ll do better.”

Immediate impact That’s the whole purpose of the non-profit, public charity called Vision to Learn — to have an immediate impact on elementary school students in low-income communities throughout Los Angeles. In short, to improve the lives of children “one pair of eyeglasses at a time.”

The stats, gathered mostly from Vision to Learn’s first partner, the Los Angeles Unified School District, are truly amazing. Although 80 percent of all learning during the first 12 years of a child’s life is dependent on vision, 30,000 to 40,000 of kindergarten-through-fifth-graders in Los Angeles need glasses to see the chalkboard, whiteboard or smart (computer generated) board, or to simply read a book.

Some 60 percent of “problem learners” have undetected vision problems. Often these students are labeled as “disruptive,” “learning disabled” or even diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Yet 90 percent of children’s vision problems can be corrected with eyeglasses.

This is why the Beutner Family Foundation decided to tackle the problem about a year ago. The mobile eye clinic started going out to public schools in early April and more recently to parochial schools in Los Angeles, including St. Malachy, Holy Name of Jesus, Our Lady of the Rosary of Talpa, Mother of Sorrows and Immaculate Conception. 

To date, nearly 20 public and private elementary schools have been visited and more than 730 students have been examined and received new eyeglasses.

“Our hope and goal is to assist as many students as possible to be able to see the blackboard and to enhance their ability to read and learn,” Jeri Norris, executive director of Vision to Learn, told The Tidings. “This is a problem that has an immediate fix potential. I mean, there’s a lot of things that impact a kid’s ability to learn, but we wanted to put our resources where they have an immediate impact. 

“A lot of the kids who are deemed ADHD or have behavior and other learning problems, it’s really because of the fact that they’re frustrated because they can’t see the board. A lot of kids have lived with poor vision their whole life, and they don’t even know that they can’t see as good as other students. So that’s why we’re doing this — to really tackle what we consider an overlooked issue that’s correctible.”

Getting better grades Juan Rojas didn’t know his eyes needed correction, and only found that out during the prescreening Immaculate Conception did in mid-May. And then later, when the fifth-grader was examined in the mobile eye clinic by an optician and optometrist, he learned how bad his vision really was. The bluish rectangular frame he picked out looked “cool” on him, but there is another reason why he can’t wait to get his eyeglasses.

“It’ll help me because I can see the board better with my new glasses,” Juan observed. “So it’ll help me get better grades, getting more As than Bs and Cs.” 

Another student, Gabriel Zamora, knew he had bad eyesight because he wore glasses in public school from first through fourth grade. But then a month or so before transferring to Immaculate Conception last year, he broke his glasses and went through fifth grade squinting at the board until his teacher moved him towards the front. But the smaller letters on the smart board were still blurry. 

“I think getting glasses again will help me 100 percent,” Gabriel said, “’cause I’ll be able to see better and write down better notes. Especially with language arts, when you’re trying to copy words from the smart board and you can’t really see. Also for math, I can’t see the problems that well. So I write down the wrong numbers and get it wrong.”

Heather Murphy-Garcia teaches language arts to sixth graders as well as religion to eighth grade students. With master’s degrees in both urban planning and education, she also is the director of curriculum at Immaculate Conception. 

“Not having glasses, or the right kind of glasses, is a huge problem,” the 36-year-old educator stressed. “At the beginning of the school year, we see kids squinting. We try to help and can get their vision tested; we just can’t provide them with glasses. And our parents can’t afford them. Over 90 percent of our students are on the government’s free or partially free lunch program.”

Murphy-Garcia also points out that elementary school students’ eyes, like the rest of their bodies, are developing. So even the kids who wear eyeglasses often need stronger prescriptions. And then there’s the fact that these “hard-playing” children are prone to breaking or losing their glasses. A number have taped- or glued-together old glasses until their struggling working-class parents can come up with the money to replace them, which can be months or even years.  

“If students are nearsighted, we can move them closer to either the smart board or white board, but that’s not an ideal situation,” she explained. “And if they’re farsighted, we can’t really do too much because they can’t read what’s in front of them. So it’s really difficult for the kids who need glasses.”

Veteran urban principal Mary Ann Murphy readily agrees. For the 55 Immaculate Conception students who are getting new glasses this month from Vision to Learn, it’ll make their school life a much better — and enjoyable — learning experience.

“Oh, I think it will be like the fog clearing,” said Murphy. “Now they can really see, they can read. It’ll make them feel smarter. It’ll boost their self-esteem. So it’s a godsend.” 

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