“Not bad at all!” Mai told him. “You just need a little help.”
Ja’karri was among two dozen children at the camp in Severn, Md., to get free vision screenings and exams from a mobile clinic operated by the national nonprofit Vision to Learn. With 25 mobile clinics in 13 states, the organization tries to help children learn by making sure they can see — one pair of glasses at a time.
Vision to Learn was born in 2012 when philanthropist Austin Beutner, then the deputy mayor of Los Angeles, had lunch with state education leaders. When one of them mentioned some students struggled to see the boards in their classrooms because they didn’t have glasses, Beutner was surprised that the problem hadn’t already met a policy fix. He told The Washington Post that he and his wife, Virginia Beutner, bought an out-of-use mobile clinic from a hospital and staffed it with optometrists. Vision to Learn was born.
Over the next few years, Beutner said, he met boys who did not know trees have individual leaves and girls who had no idea rice has grains. Their vision was just too poor to tell. Students often have no idea that they should be able to see more clearly than they do, said Wade Brown, Vision to Learn’s manager of East Coast operations.
“Kids can tell you their stomach hurts,” he said. “They can tell you their arm hurts. They can tell you their leg hurts. They can’t tell you they can’t see.”
Vision to Learn also tackles the stigma that children with glasses can face. Students may mock children with glasses for being different, but glasses become cool when sports stars and other prominent people support wearing them. Vision to Learn has tapped celebrities involved with the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation and the television personality Mehmet Oz, better known as Dr. Oz, to promote the nonprofit’s mission.
That mission is important, Beutner said, because schools often consider children with untreated vision impairments to be “problem students” when they actually just don’t have all the tools they need to participate in class. For many children, a pair of glasses with the correct prescription sets a path to learning and fitting in with peers.
“The second path is, you don’t get them, you become marginalized,” Beutner said.
Since the program began, Vision to Learn has given out 180,000 pairs of glasses and provided 225,000 exams to low-income children who otherwise may not have had access to them. Few optometrists accept Medicaid, and working parents often don’t have time to take their children to an eye exam and later select and pick up glasses, said Ann Hollister, president of Vision to Learn.
One of the organization’s principles is to physically meet children where they are, so the mobile clinic goes to camps and after-school programs, as well as Title I schools, where high percentages of students are low-income. Seventy percent of Vision to Learn’s funding comes from philanthropy, and 30 percent originates with public-private partnerships, Hollister said, including agreements with the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Vision to Learn spends an average of $100 on each child, she said. In four states — Maryland, Delaware, Iowa and Michigan — Medicaid reimburses Vision to Learn for students who are covered by that type of insurance.
Maryland law requires students to get eye screenings when they start school, in first grade and in eighth or ninth grade. In Virginia, where Vision to Learn also operates, students are required to get eye screenings in kindergarten, in second or third grade, and in seventh and 10th grade. The nonprofit group does not operate in the District.
During the academic year, Hollister said, the organization first gets a memorandum of understanding with a school district so it can offer students free vision screenings, exams and glasses.
Vision to Learn then uses a retinal camera to photograph an eye of each student who will not get a state-mandated screening in school that year, and the photo indicates whether the student needs a full exam.
Students who need an exam bring home permission slips to their parents, and Vision to Learn returns to the school in a mobile clinic with an optometrist and optician on board. Usually, Hollister said, 80 percent of students who get exams need glasses, and they can pick their frames from about 30 colorful options.
The optician goes back to the school about two weeks later to deliver and size the students’ new glasses. Students get as many free replacement frames as they need for a year.
Vision to Learn’s biggest challenge has been getting parents to return the permission slips that allow their children to get vision tests, Hollister said. Parents don’t always dig into their children’ backpacks to find the papers, she said, and some are hesitant to sign any forms because they may be undocumented immigrants. She said Vision to Learn can serve more students when districts ask parents to opt out if they don’t want their children to get tested, instead of asking all parents to opt in.
As a result of the eye exams and glasses distribution, students who can see more clearly are more engaged in school, behave better and have higher self-esteem, said Amanda Inns, an assistant research scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education.
“Can you imagine sitting in school all day not able to see what’s on the board, not being able to see what’s going on?” said Inns, who has worked with and researched Vision to Learn in Baltimore. “At some point, your behavior is going to start to reflect that.”
Inside the intentionally dark mobile clinic at the Boys & Girls Club in Severn, optician Brandi Stephens asked campers to look into the retinal camera and focus on the image of a hot-air balloon floating above a field of yellow flowers. Vision to Learn avoids using eye drops to dilate the eyes or other invasive procedures, and the organization refers about 10 percent of children to external doctors to be treated for more serious conditions.
The program sometimes struggles to find optometrists who want to work in a mobile office part time, employees said, especially because many of the low-income communities that Vision to Learn serves already face a dearth of eye doctors. The nonprofit pays optometrists for their work.
Mai, the doctor at the mobile clinic outside the Boys & Girls Club, said she joined Vision to Learn in 2016 because she wanted to work with children. She conducts eye exams in the mobile clinic two days each week, calming nervous patients and giving them jelly beans after their testing.
Ja’karri, the boy who couldn’t see mosquitoes when they landed on his arm, finished up his eye exam and then tucked the stems of a pair of red glasses behind his ears. He glanced in a mirror and saw the fit wasn’t quite right. When the optician pulled out a box with more frames, Ja’karri pointed at a bright green pair and placed them on his head. They were perfect.
Satisfied, Ja’karri handed the test frames back to the optician, hopped off the chair and went back to camp. His new glasses would arrive in a few weeks.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the optometrists’ employment status when Vision to Learn began. They were paid staff members, not volunteers.