Meet our visionaries
It's back-to-school season, and millions of low-income kids in the United States will start classes without the glasses they need. What does that mean? It means they will face a huge barrier to reading and learning and shoulder a needless burden to their self-esteem and confidence.
But low-income kids are not the only vulnerable people in the U.S. who urgently need vision care and properly prescribed glasses.
This is why Helen Keller International is expanding its 25-year-old ChildSight program to address the huge need for eye health services among:
- runaway homeless youth
- underserved veterans
- newly arrived immigrants and refugees, and
- low-income seniors and homeless families.
HKI has launched new vision services—reaching beyond kids in schools—to benefit the most vulnerable people in the nation’s poorest urban communities.
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Ezekiel is eight years old. He lives with his mother in a shelter for homeless families in Brooklyn. HKI has started partnering with a variety of organizations in order to provide vision care services to vulnerable children.
"I was wearing my glasses so much that when I was taking them off, one side broke. That was in January. So, I don’t wear them now. I could see with my glasses on, but I can’t see without my glasses, and I’m not able to read. I can’t even do my homework without my glasses.
I feel happy to get new glasses today. I’m looking forward to reading, and to doing my homework, and to focusing. I wanted those blue ones, but they were too big, and I picked the camouflage one, and it was too big. But then, finally, I found a pair of glasses that was not too big, not too little, it was just right. They look awesome, cool, and amazing. Maybe I look smart.
I feel kinda nervous about going back to school. I might get the questions wrong. I’m starting a new school. The glasses make me look cooler. I’m excited."
Martha Moses is Assistant Coordinator for HKI’s ChildSight program in New York City. She has been an important part of our life-changing work for 18 years.
“I think the ‘helping field’ is more or less my calling. I can be on the street, and it seems like anyone who needs help gravitates towards me.
We serve areas of New York that are overlooked. I actually grew up in this area. These people are trying to make it, like you and me. They are low-income and need a lot of services, but they have to fight for every little one. Normally, we serve middle-school students in schools. We started reaching out to homeless shelters last year. For some people, it’s a struggle to get to the eye doctor. It’s a relief when we come to them; it’s one less thing they have to worry about.
When you don’t have a lot of money and you go to the optical shop, you have a really small selection of frames. With HKI, that’s not the case. We have partnerships with companies that provide frames, and I choose about 80 to 100 of them to offer to clients. I look at how people are dressed around me, and I look in magazines. That’s how I figure out what’s in and what’s out.
Five years ago, Ibrahim and his family were vetted and granted admission into the United States as resettled refugees from Iraq. Ibrahim loves to build and fix things, and he has dreams of becoming a doctor. HKI’s ChildSight team visited Ibrahim’s public school in New Haven, Connecticut last year, where they gave him a vision screening and a new pair of properly prescribed eyeglasses.
“The blackboard used to look good, but it started to get blurry. Now when I go to class, I can’t copy the whole paragraph.
I love going to school so I can have a good education. I learned English from my teacher. Sometimes I help translate for my parents.
Tran Mai Anh
Tran Mai Anh is 15 years old. She received a vision screening and new glasses through HKI’s ChildSight program in Vietnam, which provides eye-health services to children in schools in vulnerable communities.
“I can’t see things in the distance. When I sit too far from the blackboard, I can’t see it. I can only catch up when the teacher reads things from the blackboard.
My new glasses are nice. Now that I have the proper prescription, I can see much more clearly. It will be much better for me now because I won’t have to annoy my friends by always asking them what the teacher wrote on the board. Glasses improve my vision—and my confidence.”
Meghan Lynch is the Director of HKI’s U.S. ChildSight program, which operates in California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and has just expanded to communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
I am proud of Helen Keller International’s ChildSight program in the U.S. because it has evolved to transcend race, gender, ethnicity, class, socioeconomic background, nationality, and age to simply focus on need. People across the U.S. have needs for vision care that aren’t being met, and we serve those needs. Period.
In the world of public health in the U.S., few “outcomes” are as tangible as the ones this program delivers. We show up. We provide services. We give glasses to people who otherwise can’t access services or afford prescription glasses. Boom! That person’s issue is fixed. By no means are the broad challenges faced by these individuals and their communities solved, but a really essential one—being able to see clearly—is.
One of the nicest things about the ChildSight program is that the prescriptions we provide are active for a year after they are written. If anyone we have seen loses her glasses, misplaces them, breaks them, whatever, we'll replace them. For free. That doesn’t always happen with government-sponsored social safety net programs or other charitable programs.
Our vision is to expand our program model—which has been going strong for 24 years—to the 25 cities in America with the highest child poverty rates by 2025. At the same time, we are expanding the program to reach more underserved and vulnerable people—including veterans, families in crisis, at-risk youth, and refugees—in the communities in which we have anchored our school-based work, places where we know we can make a difference.
There is deep comfort for me in running this program, providing these services, and being a force for good. We are making a positive impact on people’s lives. Helping people see is a powerful and important thing.
Jorge Valdez is the optician and program manager for HKI’s ChildSight services in California.
“Eighty percent of what children learn, they learn visually. So, if children can’t see, they're not going to succeed in school.
My job allows me to provide glasses for students and make a difference in their lives. By improving their vision, we improve their academic life and their social life. We also boost their confidence. The kids look great in their glasses. They feel good about themselves. It's amazing when the kids first put on their glasses. Their eyes light up. They smile, and it's like, “Wow!” They can see.
At one of the middle schools that we serve, this young boy came in with literally grandma glasses. It turns out that he had just moved to Los Angeles from another country, and his family could not afford to provide eyeglasses for him. His grandmother let him borrow her glasses, and his friends made fun of him. On the day HKI visited his school, we were able to give him a full eye exam. We also helped him pick out some amazing frames that looked good on him and that he could wear with pride.
Another time, one of the students put on glasses for the first time. His mom was there, and he said, ‘Whoa, Mom: that’s what you look like!’ The mom started crying. Up until then, this kid's mom had just been a blur. It was profound.
Our program services approximately 10,000 students in Los Angeles County per year. Out of those 10,000, one in four requires a pair of eyeglasses. I am blessed that I get to go out and help children see. I help them do better in school, help them read, help them feel good about themselves. And I get to see smiles all day. It is a blessing. I'm very happy.”