How you can improve kids’ eye health—and education—with help from Optometry Cares® grant
Thousands of Mississippi third graders have been at risk of not advancing to the fourth grade since a 2013 law was implemented. The law requires third graders to pass a reading assessment—known as the "third-grade reading gate"—before being promoted.
After the failure rates were announced the first year, the Mississippi Vision Foundation started the Children's Vision Education Project to offer no-cost, comprehensive eye exams to any third grader who failed the test. The foundation also began working to educate school leaders and parents about the strong link between literacy and vision.
Of the students who took advantage of the no-cost, comprehensive exam that first year, 88% needed some type of vision correction. If the child didn't have insurance, the foundation worked with local partners to provide glasses at no cost.
"Out of that small cohort, we saw there was a lot of need," says Kimberly Ragan, O.D., who directs the program as board president of the Mississippi Vision Foundation, the charitable arm of the Mississippi Optometric Association.
The Children's Vision Education Project received a boost in 2018-2019 with a Healthy Eyes Healthy Children (HEHC) community grant, an initiative of Optometry Cares ®—the AOA Foundation , supported by founding sponsor Essilor Vision Foundation, Healthy Eyes Advantage and EyeCare Partners. The HEHC grant program focuses on increasing outreach of vision services to communities, families, schools and the medical community with special attention to underserved children. The program furnishes up to $5,000 in grant money to projects that help support those goals and align important optometric care within the community.
In the 2018-2019 grant cycle, the HEHC program provided $65,500 to support 15 community projects in 11 states.
The Mississippi Vision Foundation used its grant to create a social media campaign that increased awareness of the program. The campaign focused on Lauderdale County, where reading assessment failure rates averaged 17.8%. The foundation posted three times a week on social media. The posts linked to the foundation website, where visitors could learn more about the no-cost, comprehensive eye exam and the importance of eye health on education. The campaign also included YouTube videos and a Google AdWord strategy.
A Facebook post called "Bookworm" went viral, reaching 25,000 people organically (without paying for Facebook to "boost" the post) in 10 days. After funds were invested to boost the post, it reached another 4,000 Mississippians.
"We have seen a lot of increased informational requests from our social media campaign," Dr. Ragan says. "We got a lot of traction from people looking at the videos and a high click rate."
The social media campaign has been running consistently since summer 2018. In August 2019, the program hosted a Back-to-School Lunch and Learn in the target county for superintendents, principals, school health officials, city council members and other elected legislators and officials, economic development council members and local business leaders.
Caring for Head Start children
Indiana doctors of optometry used the HEHC grant to expand outreach to Head Start, a federal education program that promotes school readiness for children from birth to age 5 from low-income families. The Indiana University School of Optometry created the Vision for the Future program in 2016 to combine multiple pediatric outreach programs into one and to develop more strategic efforts.
The HEHC grant allowed the program to expand its efforts, says Katie Connolly, O.D., assistant clinical professor and chief of pediatric and binocular vision service at Indiana University School of Optometry. Dr. Connolly runs the program with Don Lyon, O.D., clinical professor and director of residencies.
Federal law requires Head Start children to have a vision screening within the first 45 days of enrollment. But Dr. Connolly and Dr. Lyon wanted to go beyond the requirement and provide comprehensive eye exams, glasses when necessary and transportation to the clinic. They focused on the Bloomington area initially but have expanded to six more counties, partnering with doctors of optometry to provide the care locally. A coordinator organizes the program, communicating with families, scheduling appointments and keeping Head Start staff updated.
"HEHC allowed us to go back to Bloomington and solidify our work there," Dr. Connolly says. "It also allowed us to do more marketing and education, which we realized was key." The program was having trouble getting parents from the initial outreach to the exam, even though exams were at no cost and transportation was provided. The HEHC grant allowed the program to create brochures to provide to Head Start families and to do educational events at the Head Start centers.
"We've certainly had buy-in by the Head Start centers; they really see the value of the program. They've seen that some of the children we've worked with have had a positive impact on their daily life," Dr. Connolly says. "They've been instrumental in spreading the word, and that's because they see how valuable providing early intervention can be."
The Vision for the Future program also has expanded internationally. Dr. Connolly is working through a program in Jamaica called "See Better. Learn Better," and its goal is to provide comprehensive eye exams to children. Dr. Connolly travels to Jamaica a couple of times each year as she works to build a sustainable eye care program for Jamaican children in first, third and fifth grades.
Dr. Lyon's international efforts are focused on Rwanda, where he provides eye care to children during visits and is working with government officials to start an optometry school.
Focusing on School Vision Health Month
The New York State Optometric Association (NYSOA) continued its School Vision Health Month program for the second year, thanks to an HEHC grant. During the month—typically held in October but also held in March 2019—NYSOA volunteer doctors provide comprehensive eye exams at designated schools, through a partnership with the state education department.
The association and the state education department identify two school districts each in two counties, one urban, one rural, that need attention. The doctors examined 90 children in October and 128 in March at the schools. VSP donated glasses, and volunteer opticians were on-site to fit the children. VSP also provided vouchers for further no-cost care when needed.
"We also expanded the impact of the program by adding in a number of new educational elements like brochures for teachers and parents and fun activity books and games for the students," says Jeff Calhoun, O.D., NYSOA immediate past president. "This meant that all participants, regardless of whether or not they needed glasses or follow-up care, were still able to bring home materials reinforcing the importance of regular, comprehensive eye exams for school-age children."
Local media covered the program, further expanding public education, and the NYSOA uses the initiative to illustrate to state lawmakers the importance of providing comprehensive eye exams to all children early in life.
Make a difference today
Optometry Cares—The AOA Foundation is committed to seeing its vision come to fruition, raising awareness about the importance of eye health, increasing access to vision care, and providing support to doctors of optometry and students in need. Here's how you can help make a difference today:
Consider a tax-deductible donation to Optometry Cares—The AOA Foundation as part of your end-of-year giving to help support HEHC.
Learn more and apply for the next Health Eyes Health Children grant cycle in March 2020.
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