In underserved communities across the country, a shocking 95 percent of kids who need glasses do not have them. Most states have a law to assess first graders’ vision by having them read an eye chart. An average 25 percent will fail. Those parents receive a letter suggesting follow-up professional vision care. Unfortunately, due to a wide variety of reasons, the follow-up in low income and vulnerable populations is extremely small. Thus, Vision to Learn was created, utilizing mobile clinics to bring eye exams and attractive glasses free of charge to these children.
Since the nonprofit was founded in 2012, it has expanded to more than 500 cities from Honolulu to Baltimore. It has provided vision screenings to more than 1,250,000 children, exams to nearly 300,000, and glasses to almost 225,000. In 2018, Pittsburgh joined the ranks.
New Eye & Ear Foundation board member Bruce Gebhardt was instrumental in bringing Vision to Learn to Western Pennsylvania. He became involved when his close friend Austin Beutner founded the organization. Gebhardt secured local funding from Heinz Endowments, the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, and the Richard King Mellon Foundation.
A Johns Hopkins three-year study of Vision to Learn’s efforts found that wearing glasses equated to four to six months of additional learning. “It seems intuitively obvious but seeing a book or the board is fundamental to learning,” Gebhardt said. “You watch a child’s face light up when they get their glasses and see clearly for the first time.
As of 2019-2020, more than two dozen school districts in the area have been visited by Vision to Learn, with more than 100 locations served. Over 7,000 kids in the Pittsburgh area have received free glasses. Local Program Manager Mark Scaramuzzi recently hired a second staff member to take on day-to-day operations so he can focus on expanding into more rural areas and around the region. The program is also trying to collect enough data so they can be reimbursed by Medicare, which is a long process.
One way in which the UPMC Eye Center has been helping Vision to Learn is with the more complex cases. If a child is screened and needs more than just glasses, they get a referral to Children’s and then the Department of Pediatric Ophthalmology. Children’s helps them get the right kind of care and at a free or reduced rate.
The Eye & Ear Foundation is supporting efforts to work with Vision to Learn to reach a broader population. One of the kids shared that he was unable to wear his new glasses all the time because he has to share them with his brother and mom. The hope is to partner with the Guerrilla Eye Service to screen parents and grandparents. After visiting a particular school, a flyer can be sent home about an upcoming clinic at the same location where adults are welcome.
Vision to Learn is also partnering with Mission of Mercy to provide pediatric vision screening while the UPMC Eye Center provides care to adults who otherwise lack access. The next clinic – which also provides free dental and hearing services — is August 5-6, 2022, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.