Telegram & Gazette Staff
WORCESTER - Eight-year-old Selena Rivera shook her head solemnly “no” when optician Jerry Hastings asked her if she’d ever worn glasses.
The Gates Lane School second-grader was excited to be doing something new: selecting glasses, at no charge, through the Worcester EYES partnership between MCPHS University and Worcester public schools.
It made her feel good, Selena said, as MCPHS fourth-year optometry student Iqra Wahid escorted her to a playroom in the Eye and Vision Clinic at MCPHS University’s 10 Lincoln St. center, where she waited for her eyes to dilate before undergoing an eye health exam.
Ten Gates Lane students were at MCPHS University for their morning of vision care Tuesday.
It wasn’t all fun and games. Getting drops in her eyes to dilate them was “really weird,” said another Gates Lane student, Shyanne Patterson, 6.
But the first-grader declared the frames she chose - black on the outside and green on the inside - “pretty cool.”
More important than just donning a new look, the students are getting valuable vision care through the program to help them see and learn better.
“It’s actually pretty cool,” Shyanne said. “It’s like a whole new world.”
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Another first-grader, An Mai, 7, who was getting her eyes examined by optometrist Dr. Mengli Han, agreed about the prospect of seeing more clearly: “It will be a different world. I really want it now.”
The seeds of the EYES partnership, which stands for “Engage your eyes, students,” were planted five years ago when MCPHS University allied with South High Community School to provide eye exams and eyewear for free, explained Mr. Hastings, an adjunct faculty member and optical manager at MCPHS.
Three years ago, the Essilor Vision Foundation, which has provided more than 1 million pairs of eyeglasses to people in need in the United States, according to its website, reached out to Mr. Hastings at a professional meeting and encouraged the Worcester optometry school to expand its program.
Mr. Hastings brought the suggestion to schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda, who told him, “Let’s bring it to the whole system.”
It took nearly a year to formalize the first-of-its-kind collaboration among MCHPS University, Worcester public schools and the Essilor Vision Foundation, which provides the eyewear.
In the two years since the program launched districtwide, MCPHS University students and faculty have conducted approximately 2,500 screenings and 300 comprehensive exams, and dispensed 250 pairs of glasses to students, all at no charge.
Not every student who is referred to Worcester EYES ends up needing glasses, Mr. Hastings said. The comprehensive eye exam in itself can help resolve an identified concern.
More Students who are identified by school staff because they struggled with an in-school vision test are taken to MCPHS University during the school day, saving their parents from scheduling an appointment and having to take time off from work. After a thorough vision check, a complete eye exam and selection of glasses, if necessary, the students are bused back.
When the glasses are ready, Mr. Hastings delivers them to students at school. The Gates Lane students, who will be out for the summer when their glasses are finished, will be contacted at home.
“That’s the most rewarding,” Mr. Hastings said about presenting students with their new eyewear. “We put the glasses on and the kid goes, ‘Ah!’ ”
He said 80% of what people learn comes through the eyes.
Paying attention to vision is increasingly important as the use of mobile screen devices, such as smartphones and tablets, grows.
“We’re seeing a large increase in nearsightedness worldwide,” Mr. Hastings said.
Another trend, said third-year optometry student Svetoslava Raykova, is to try to catch binocular vision problems - difficulties in how the eyes work together - before receptors in the brain fully develop.
“There’s a bigger focus on getting people in earlier for screening, at least,” Ms. Raykova said.
“I think it should be a state law to have not just screenings but comprehensive eye exams in preschool,” Mr. Hastings said.
The students who need early vision care the most may also be those least likely to receive it because of the cost and burden of arranging for exams and getting glasses, under normal circumstances. Some 19,000 Worcester public schools students are classified as high need, indicating a low income, English language learner or special education status, according to MCPHS University.
“I think the main thing this (Worcester EYES) does for Worcester public schools is, it provides access,” Mr. Hastings said.
“It makes a big difference when they can see correctly,” said Robyn Golden, a Gates Lane tutor who accompanied the students. “It helps them learn.”
She said, “I think it’s a fabulous program for these kids because they’re getting what they need.”