Meet our visionaries
Every fall, millions of kids in the United States begin attending school 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.”
Antonio lives in Covenant House, a New York City shelter for homeless and trafficked youth. He received glasses through HKI’s ChildSight program, which provides free vision screenings and glasses to low-income and at-risk youth.
"Usually everything is potato face. I don’t think I’ve seen anything clear for almost like four years now. That was the last time I had a pair of glasses.
I was fighting with my stepfather, and I decided that maybe it would be best for my relationship with my mother to move away. At that time, my glasses broke. You know, when you move away, you kinda lose track of things, and I didn't have insurance to go get a pair of glasses.
A lot of the stuff I do requires me to have relatively good eyesight. Like, I do a lot of computer games, I draw, and it’s hard to draw when you can’t see much, you know? I want to go to college. I finished my GED, but it was a little bit of a challenge.
I was talking to my case manager, and she basically said, 'Well, I know your eyesight sucks, and I notice you don’t have health care. We have a program that’s going to be happening here. We can help you get your glasses.' So, I said, why not? It was a really cool event. [The doctor] put the glass [lens] right on my face, and it was like, 'I can see again!' That was like, you ever seen in those movies where the hero steps out of the fog, and it’s just like, welcome to victory? It was like that, it was like conquering a mighty beast, you know? Whoa … I can actually see."
Meredith Walburg is the Doctor of Optometry serving HKI’s new ChildSight programs in Minnesota. She is also a former employee of our programs in New York City.
I worked for Childsight in New York City during the 2008 to 2009 school year. I had just finished my optometry degree at the State University of New York and became familiar with the wonderful work the program was doing in urban communities.
I now work for the program in in my home state of Minnesota, bringing services to schoolchildren in Saint Paul and Minneapolis. When I moved back to the Twin Cities area, I was surprised by the level of need for vision care─and by the fact that there is such a large, underserved population here. Minnesota has a well-deserved reputation for outstanding health care, but there are many families and communities that face barriers to obtaining access to this outstanding care.
Helen Keller International’s ChildSight program removes many of those barriers for children and their families. No extra transportation is necessary for the student or family to reach the program, the care is free, and it is not necessary for a parent or guardian to miss work to get services for their child.
I have worked in nonprofit health care for the majority of my 11-year career. It can be challenging sometimes, but it is always tremendously rewarding. ChildSight’s new vision to expand its services to the 25 urban school districts with the highest levels of need is wonderful. I am thrilled to be part of it.
Vera is a senior citizen affiliated with the Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center, part of a public housing complex on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. HKI supported a vision screening and eyeglass distribution at the center.
I wear glasses, and I had not had my eyes checked since last year. My old glasses gave me a headache.
I was surprised to see HKI at the senior center - but happy at the same time. My children got their glasses through ChildSight when they were in school, so I was familiar with HKI.
Amal was one of the first people in line when HKI offered free vision screenings and eye exams to new immigrants and refugees at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven, Connecticut.
I am from Sudan. I have lived in the United States for five years. I came here to check my eyes. They gave me reading glasses, and distance glasses, too.
I’m so glad. Now, I must go to university, and glasses [will] help me a lot to attend, to study, to read newspaper, everything. Even to see the television, because for [a] long time, I didn’t see anything.
Gianna lives in Covenant House, a New York City shelter for homeless and trafficked youth. She received glasses through HKI’s ChildSight program, which provides free vision screenings and glasses to low-income and at-risk youth.
I’m deaf in my right ear and I have 10% hearing in my left. Since I have hearing loss I depend on my vision more than my hearing. So it’s helpful to read lips and, you know, if someone’s talking to me it helps me hear better.
I like these [glasses] because they’re thin so it helps with my implant. Thick frames push my implant so it winds up falling. So I really like these [thinner ones] because it’s a perfect fit for my face and I like the style.
Tonya Daniels is HKI’s ChildSight Program Manager in New York.
I've been working for Helen Keller International for a little over 17 years. I [got involved because] I wanted to do something that made a difference. I saw an ad for the ChildSight position. And here I am, 17 years later, sleeping very well at night because I know that I'm making a difference in someone's life.
Seventy-five percent of the youth we see in homeless shelters end up needing eyeglasses. Some of them haven't had glasses—ever. Some haven't had glasses in years. I met a young lady at a homeless shelter last year, for example, who had the sides and the bridge of her eyeglass frames held together with masking tape.
If these students do not receive vision care services via ChildSight, it’s hard for them to function. They can't learn. They can't see. It's difficult for them to obtain jobs to better themselves. These students are going on interviews. They have to fill out applications for jobs. They have to be able to see the computer or see the bus to get on the right one to get to where they're supposed to be. They have extraordinary talents. They’re well spoken, but have been through difficult issues or situations in their lives. It doesn't mean they can't go on and be successful. This is where ChildSight comes in: to help with that. To help get them back on the right path to success and being a productive citizen in today's world.
Allison is a 6th grader at a magnet public school in New Haven, CT.
ChildSight staff returned to the school on the day before Thanksgiving to dispense eyeglasses that had been ordered during eye exams a few weeks before. Allison was the first person in line to try her new frames on. We hope she enjoyed having her new glasses for the holiday!
"I'm excited to be here. I kept coming in to ask Nurse Jenny if it was time to get my glasses.
I knew I needed glasses for awhile. I used to have a pair but they broke. My parents work a lot and were too busy to get me a new pair.
With these new glasses, the prescription is great. They really help me to see stuff that is far away."