‘Silver linings’ projects fuel eye health, vision care outreach

November 30, 2021
Healthy Eyes Healthy Children funded years of community initiatives bolstering awareness and access to children’s eye care. Your donation can support impactful Optometry Cares®—The AOA Foundation programs.
Healthy Eyes Healthy Children projects fuel eye health, vision care outreach

“It takes a village to raise a child,” so the adage goes. But in the case of Amy Moy, O.D., and other parents of children with special needs, that “village” is a community less defined by geography and more by shared experience.

“For many parents of children with Down syndrome, they’ll just constantly write on Facebook, ‘Hey, I can’t find the right glasses for my child, can you help? Or ‘How do I get my child adjusted to their new glasses?’” Dr. Moy says. She knows those concerns firsthand, too. They’re some of the same she’s had with her own child having Down syndrome.

“All of those things have been in the back of my mind, then this grant opportunity came up.”

The opportunity that Dr. Moy, director of New England College of Optometry’s (NECO’s) Health Center Network, is talking about was a Healthy Eyes Healthy Children (HEHC) grant available through Optometry Cares®—The AOA Foundation and made possible through the generous support of founding sponsor Essilor Vision Foundation. These grants for up to $5,000 helped establish community-based solutions that ensure awareness of and access to crucial eye health and vision care services.

In applying for and receiving a 2020 HEHC grant, Dr. Moy and project co-lead Jennifer Reilly, O.D., an assistant professor at NECO, launched a Boston-area program called READ: Resources, Education and Access for kids with Disabilities. READ focuses on providing eye exams and glasses, as well as a series of educational materials, to families of children with physical or intellectual disabilities. Those educational materials help prepare kids for their eye exam, adjust to new glasses and learn about other vision treatments or therapies.

“This grant project has been a silver lining not just for us as providers and a clinic but also the whole health center—we’ve all been really excited and so have the families we’ve been reaching,” Dr. Reilly says. “Especially during the pandemic, patients and families have said this couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Drs. Moy and Reilly expressed joy at seeing how families and children became excited over myriad frame options, where Medicaid often doesn’t cut it, and at developing a series of multilingual, social stories and resources for families to access prior to an exam. So far, those online resources average 30 to 40 unique visits per week and have been shared throughout local hospitals, health centers and school districts.

But their fulfillment doesn’t end there. Throughout a year marred by a pandemic, READ brought uplifting moments in an equally poignant setting. Dr. Reilly recalls how the READ program helped two different children at Boston Children’s Hospital intensive care unit—a pediatric cancer patient and a child recovering from respiratory distress.

Conducting bedside exams, Dr. Reilly helped these children find free glasses made possible through the HEHC grant. It wasn’t until after the exam, when the parents reached out, that Dr. Reilly fully realized the program’s impact.

“The parents shared that when you have a child this sick, every day is a bad day,” Dr. Reilly relays. “But when you have something even as small as this that your child can get excited about, that’s one day that can get you through the week.”

HEHC celebrates years of impact

A program of Optometry Cares, HEHC was established in 2017 to stimulate community initiatives in health promotion and prevention while also encouraging a more comprehensive approach to the eye and vision care needs of underserved children. In providing up to $5,000 in “seed grant” funding, HEHC supported projects that addressed community education, awareness of the importance of eye health and vision care, and remedied access concerns for underserved children. 

Since its launch, HEHC grant recipients have made outstanding contributions in helping expand children’s access to comprehensive eye care, including: 

  • Over 46,000 comprehensive eye examinations administered
  • Over 25,000 pairs of eyeglasses dispensed
  • Over 12,000 new eyeglasses wearers

In 2020-21 alone, Optometry Cares awarded $73,000 through 15 HEHC grants in 14 states. Although the HEHC program formally ends at the conclusion of the current grant cycle, Optometry Cares notes the opportunity going forward to build upon the impressive impact these projects had on communities nationwide.

Carol Record, O.D., Optometry Cares incoming president, says the foundation is very proud of the HEHC program's success in helping reach so many underserved children.

“On behalf of Optometry Cares and HEHC’s founding sponsor Essilor Vision Foundation, we are honored to have supported doctors of optometry and our community partners who are so passionate and committed to pediatric vision care,” Optometry Cares states with the HEHC program’s conclusion.

Expanding access to pediatric vision care

That passion is something that Mojgan Besharat, O.D., positively radiates. Leveraging a 2020-21 HEHC grant, Dr. Besharat launched a program in and around Durham, North Carolina, called In Her Eyes, that provides accessible, free, comprehensive eye care and glasses to communities of women and children that lack access to such services due to socio-economic limitations.

As Dr. Besharat explains, this unique patient population often puts eye care (and health care) last considering all the other stressors and pressures of basic living.

“Their worlds are disruption and disorder, and even visually it’s chaotic, so to be able to envision something even more is great,” Dr. Besharat says. “If you can’t see well, you can’t navigate the world in front of you.”

By partnering with local nonprofits, the In Her Eyes program was able to deliver eye care and glasses to not only women’s and homeless shelters, as well as rehabilitation and mental health facilities, but also a rural, K-5th grade elementary school with 100% of students receiving free lunches. The latter was particularly challenging as the closest town of any size was 40 minutes away and pandemic restrictions meant only half of the student body had returned for in-person learning.

“When you’re talking about access issues, this is what we’re talking about,” Dr. Besharat says. “We had a really high percentage of glasses, too. Just so many undiagnosed patients and many with near-focusing issues.

“Honestly, it was really awesome to get in there and provide access to eye care and connect people to health care during something like a pandemic, especially those communities that are cash-strapped and already having a hard time.”

Make a difference: Donate to support Optometry Cares programs

Optometry Cares is committed to raising awareness about the importance of eye health, increasing access to vision care and providing disaster relief assistance to doctors of optometry, as well as scholastic grants to current and future optometry students. Help support the foundation’s mission and make a difference today—here’s how: 

Read more about the impact that HEHC and doctors of optometry have made in their communities in the October 2018 AOA Focus article, “Bringing Care to Communities.”

Support Optometry Cares

Consider a tax-deductible donation as part of your year-end giving to ensure continued support of Optometry Cares’ programs.

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