Seeing is crucial for learning, but some kids just don’t know their vision isn’t optimal. The Phillips Eye Institute [P.E.I.] Early Youth Eye Care Community Initiative [E.Y.E.] is working to improve the way kids see. The institute is located in Minneapolis and is part of the Abbott-Northwestern campus.
“A lot of kids don’t know that they aren’t seeing correctly,” says Cheryle Atkin, E.Y.E. community programs supervisor. “It’s obvious to a parent if [their child] has a cold, or if they’re bleeding. But vision isn’t always obvious.”
The E.Y.E. initiative began in 2008 in Minneapolis Public Schools. “[Our purpose is to] work with families, schools and providers to identify and remove barriers to children receiving vision care,” Atkin says. The initiative is fully funded through philanthropy and individual donors.
In 2014, the program expanded into St. Paul Public Schools. The program serves all schools in the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school districts that have pre-K through ninth grades. Last year, screenings were done in 103 schools, says Atkin.
Before the program started, all screening had been done by school nurses. Liz Zeno, a licensed school nurse in the Minneapolis Public Schools, says previously, the schools had limited resources—they’d have to call the parents with the screening results and hope for the best.
But when schools’ screening programs were cut, there was no screening at all. “When Phillips [Eye Institute] stepped in and said they’d [screen] all the way through [ninth grade], that was amazing,” says Zeno. “The bigger part of it is the sense of having partners in the community that understand and support student health and academics in this way.”
Atkin says she recognizes that schools don’t have the financial and staffing resources to fund and coordinate care, especially when trying to screen more than 20,000 students each year.
The institute conducts vision screenings for kindergarten, first, third, fifth and seventh graders, and funds and coordinates vision care for students in pre-K through the beginning of ninth grade. Each screening is performed by a licensed optometrist and includes a full eye exam with eye dilation. Any child that doesn’t pass the screening gets sent home with a letter to their parent or guardian, and then there is follow up with each family through phone calls, says Atkin.
The program funds anything from a full vision exam and glasses to surgeries and medications. If families need further assistance such as help with transportation or interpreters, the program funds that as well. There are 14 different eye care providers that work with the program, so it’s likely that one of the providers will be close to where the student lives. “We want to reduce the barriers for the kids getting the vision care they need,” Atkin says.
Since the program began, E.Y.E. has conducted over 210,000 vision screenings. Over 5,000 students have benefitted by receiving coordination of care and funding, and about 13,000 students have had a change in their vision care as a result of the screenings.
Atkin has heard stories from students and parents that highlight the need for vision screening. “I saw one boy who looked at me and said, ‘Of course I see two things, I have two eyes.’ It was logical to him that he’d have two images—he didn’t know it wasn’t normal,” says Atkin. “One mom said, ‘I wondered why my daughter would touch something [hot or sharp],’ but it was because her child couldn’t see.”
Atkin says she has seen students struggle with sports, learning and doing everyday tasks. To help provide even greater access to vision care, in 2014 P.E.I. created the Kirby Puckett Eye Mobile—a fully-functioning on-the-go eye care center. The eye mobile had long been a dream for the institute, and after receiving a gift from the Major League Baseball Twins Community Fund in partnership with the All-Star Game Legacy Giving, Major League Baseball (MLB), Minnesota Twins and the Pohlad Family Foundation, the mobile came to life.
Visiting over 60 Minneapolis and St. Paul schools each year, the eye mobile has two fully-equipped exam rooms and an area where students can wait while their eyes are dilated and where they can pick out frames. E.Y.E. care coordinators contact parents in advance to receive consent and kids get a full eye exam and can pick out frames if glasses are required. Students get their glasses two weeks later. Ogi Eyewear donates all of the frames, and Essilor Vision Foundation supplies all the lenses. Ogi Eyewear provides beautiful, trendy frames in all sizes, so the kids aren’t getting anything that will easily break or isn’t stylish, says Atkin.
“The kids definitely have a style,” Atkin says. “It’s fun to watch them select their glasses …. You can see [how happy they are] when they try them on in the mirror.”
E.Y.E. works with over 200 volunteers to ensure needs are met, including local nursing programs, pre-optometry and pre-medical students, medical scribes, University of Minnesota medical students, retirees and Allina employees.
“There are a lot of vision issues that can be corrected at a young age,” Atkin says. “[Kids] can learn better, improve their self-esteem and be more successful in their lives. These are all reasons we get them the vision care they need.”
Zeno says, “The good will [and] partnership have a tremendous effect on relieving the burden— there’s help out there. It’s miraculous. It’s a win for everyone.”
By the Numbers
screenings conducted since 2008
children are screened from mid-September through February in the 2018-2019 school year
children have been served as beneficiaries of glasses or services from the E.Y.E program
of students do not pass the vision screening
children have had a change in vision care as a result of the E.Y.E. Community Initiative since 2008