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L.A. Area Churches Team Brings Vision to Needy Children

Written by lafocus on . Posted in 2013, LA Focus Issue 11, Top Stories

Austin Beutner is on a mission—to see to it that every child in California has access to eye exams and glasses. A pivotal part of that mission: do it free of cost to them.

Over 20% of students have a vision problem that can be identified by screening and over 80-90% of those defects can be corrected with glasses. The issue is that 100,000 children in the greater LA Area alone are in need of this help in order to see the board and aren’t getting it.

What’s worse, low income and minority students are disproportionately affected by untreated visual impairments. With a system in which many parents don’t speak or read English, release forms frequently go unsigned. And even when the screenings are given, paying for glasses, which can range to several hundred dollars in price, is still no easy task.

This is where Vision to Learn comes in.

A ticker at the top of their website counts the 12,291 children that have received free exams and, if they need them, free glasses, through the program founded by the Beutner Family Foundation.  With only a year of operation under their belt, VTL is only gaining momentum as they send their busses through low-income communities in California.

Beutner himself has already established a philanthropic background. After breaking his neck whilst cycling, he decided to retire and use his vast influence and fortune to better his community. A former Wall Street mogul, Beutner was named the first Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa —a job for which, during his fifteen-month term, he only accepted $1 a year. During his term he cut $263 million from the Department of Water and Power’s budget to avoid increasing electricity rates, and implemented new policy changes in the business community that attracted the likes of Google, BMW and Blackline—creating thousands of new, well paid jobs.

Now Beutner continues to aid the Los Angeles community by tackling one problem at a time, and right now, a problem that is being widely ignored, are the flaws in the state-mandated eye exams.

“The system is set up for itself, not to actually think about solving the problem for the kids,” he says.
The numbers are daunting. Among students entering California’s public schools, 95% of 1st graders who need glasses do not have them.

A significant cause of the issue is a simple lack of understanding on the part of parents. In low-income areas, access to detailed information about medical help that could support their families is limited.

“Before we came along, [the parents] paid for it themselves, which they shouldn’t have had to,” Beutner says. “They didn’t know [what they needed to do], couldn’t understand, and couldn’t take two days off. Even under medical you have to take the exam, take another day to go get the glasses. There’s a real cost to them within the medical system.

“Ours is costless. The kid misses 10 minutes of school. “

Vision to Learn busses doctors right to the schools, and screens every child that needs one. “Every kid gets help. We’re continuing the process to raise money and get buses to every school that needs it, but we reach out to most communities, especially those in the most need.”

Beutner cites a UCLA study that reported many parents, scared of being scammed or unable to understand the language, refused or hesitated to sign the release form every child needs to receive an eye screening.

“They thought it can’t possibly be free. No one has ever followed through with free, or it has to be a scam, but this is real.

“You’re starting at a pretty low point when people have such low distrust with something that comes to a community that says it’s free.”

Local churches are helping to change that by stepping up and offering their institutions as new locations Vision to Learn can use.

“The community trusts the pastors,” Gaye Williams, Executive Director of Vision to Learn, says. “Historically, churches have been on the frontlines of helping the needy. If they learn to partner with these organizations, to reach those children most in need of our services, they’ll have the pulse of our community.”

“The church has always been the bridge between the community and the need. So the community would definitely trust the pastors and the overseers that they would collect their with the proper resources to bless and help their family,” Reverend Michael Fisher of Greater Zion said. “It’s a great opportunity for churches to serve our children better.”

“I think it is a wonderful program that’ll benefit the inner city and The underprivileged the marginalized, and those who are without resources,” said Pastor Xavier Thompson, of Southern Missionary Baptist Church. “As the religious community embraces Austin, we do so with a heart of gratitude, and we thank God that he’s been used as a vehicle to give this resource to those who really need it.”

UCLA researchers, Drs. Slusser and Dudovitz, released a report on Vision To Learn and its impact on the students. They found that students with vision problems were increasingly more likely to perform worse academically, as measured by tests and grades. Those results go on to snowball into an even bleaker future, as the study also found the student’s performances directly impacted their overall life trajectory—from their employment and earnings, to their behaviors, and their life expectancies. From there, it will go on to hinder their children as well, and start a vicious cycle of missed opportunities.

UCLA concluded their study by hypothesizing that by providing needy students with a free exam and corrective lenses, VTL can improve overall student focus, behavior, ease and ability with their homework, and their general academic performance.

With such a widespread obstacle, the lack of similar programs outside the government-mandated eye screenings makes Vision to Learn all the more important.

“The only thing we could find was that one of the eye doctor schools nearby goes episodically to malls on weekends. They take their interns to these malls and they are given a voucher and a prescription and they told us even half of their vouchers don’t get turned in.

“You have to bring the service right to the kids.”

The benefits of Vision to Learn are apparent in the children who have taken part in the screenings and procured eyeglasses.

“They did focus groups, and across the board the teachers said the kids are doing better,” Beutner reports. “The parents said they are doing better, the kids even said they are doing better. It’s making a difference. We have had kids who have been in Special Ed and get glasses, get retested and they are not Special Ed.”

“We saw a boy one day who came in, mom knew he couldn’t see. The doctor pulls me aside and says this really isn’t what it is. The boy was wearing glasses from the 99-cent store. This made it worse because he needed glasses to see far and he put on readers instead. This poor kid is going from bad eyesight to no eyesight. He got glasses and you should’ve seen him light up.

“What we’re doing is making a pretty dramatic difference. It’s not a small problem.”

But Beutner doesn’t plan on stopping at Vision to Learn. Continuing his focus on children and education, he aims to create a better source of educational content that won’t cost as much as typical schoolbooks.

“Think about a 4th grade math textbook and you go hmm, how much does the county, city, pay for these? Imagine if Wikipedia’s open sourcing of that information met textbooks, you could save billions.”

Beutner goes on to describe a system in which a school could enlist a math teacher and a math professor from an accredited university, and they would write an open source textbook to be updated once a year.

“[We] pull in other teachers’ knowledge and we’ll give it to the schools for free. Common sense could go really far. Kids and education is a big thing for me. One thing that excites me in a community, if you forget all the nonsense going on in Washington, there are so many ways to make a different by living in a city. A lot of the solutions are local. As a community we need to fend for ourselves and if something needs to happen, we make it happen.”

For now, Beutner remains hopeful in the true extent of the impact Vision to Learn will have on South Central especially.

“I personally think a lot of disadvantaged communities probably have a long list of promises made, but not a long list of promises kept. You have to re-empower the community and give them some chance for success that they don’t have today as opposed to the polite pat on the back.

The community continues to support Vision to Learn’s efforts—from simple lemonade stands hosted by Girl Scouts to a partnership with the Dodgers Foundation.

“Vision To Learn is doing great work in providing kids the tools they need to succeed in the classroom and on the field,” says Mark Walter, owner and Foundation Chairman of the Dodgers Foundation. “Our partnership with Vision To Learn helps us support one of our key foundation pillars, Health and Wellness.”

The program was recently featured on NFL AM, where Dwight Freeney, linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, said, “I’m gonna call it a movement. They’re giving glasses to underprivileged kids so they can go out and learn.”

At a visit to Baldwin Hills Elementary school, Freeney accompanied Beutner, where they gave glasses to 70 children—out of the 400 in the school.

Tina Patel, an optometrist with Vision to Learn, says “when we put the glasses in with the machine and put it in front of them for the first time, a lot of them say, ‘wow, is that what I’m supposed to be seeing?’”

“Start in public education, to not forget any of the kids,” Beutner says. “Think about families in south LA who have a kid with certain needs, where are they going to find help? Those are the types of things that interest me to happen, rather than to talk about.”

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