Written by Shuli Lo
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Sophie X. Song
After the COVID-19 pandemic started ravaging across the U.S. in early 2020, Tzu Chi had to suspend its medical outreach programs temporarily. This was unfortunate, as the volunteers knew how much the disadvantaged communities they served needed their help. So when the number of cases began to slow in the spring of 2021, the volunteers in charge of the vision clinic immediately resumed their work on school campuses in the area after a whole year of hiatus.
The volunteers’ first stop was the Cogswell Elementary School in El Monte, CA, where on March 6, 2021, children from underserved families were given free eye exams and eyeglasses, helping them to see again.
First Ever Pair Of Glasses
The school districts in the area welcomed Tzu Chi volunteers with open arms. They helped plan the event by providing a list of students who needed Tzu Chi’s assistance most. On March 6, and the two Saturdays following it, Tzu Chi volunteers drove out to the Cogswell Elementary School campus, and set up for the clinic. On March 6 alone, the volunteers examined 27 students, diagnosing eye diseases such as astigmatism, myopia, hyperopia, amblyopia, and strabismus.
To protect the health and safety of the students, parents and volunteers at the event, the clinic was planned with the strictest pandemic prevention measures in mind. The volunteers even moved some eye examination equipment outside to minimize the risk of infection. Due to the limited number of volunteers there, each volunteer had to take on more responsibilities than usual, but everyone was just happy to serve the community again after an entire year.
Allyson Jimenez, a fourth grade student who could not see objects far away, found it difficult to read the words on the blackboard in class. Her vision problems had caused both her school and home life to suffer. A medical volunteer examined Allyson and prescribed special lenses for her. These special eyeglasses would take longer to make and would be sent to Allyson after the event, but most kids, including her brother Kenneth who was excited to put on his first ever pair of glasses, received their new glasses on the spot.
“The school districts in El Monte have many students from disadvantaged families. These children have not had their eyes checked in years,” Lina Lin, an optometrist from Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) who was in charge of the Tzu Chi Mobile Vision Clinic, explained. “Some wear broken glasses, or glasses with outdated prescriptions. Every student has a different vision problem. They all need an eye exam and glasses that will correct their particular problem. We are here today to address those needs.”
The Critical Period Of Vision Correction
“Eye care and regular check-ups for children around the age of eight are critical for diagnosing eye diseases and correcting vision early,” Lin said. “I would recommend students between the ages of six and 18 have their eyes checked at least once a year. Delayed correction can cause severe deterioration in their vision, which will eventually seriously affect their home life and performance at school.”
During the pandemic, most students stayed home and attended classes online. The time they spent outside was drastically reduced, while the time they spent inside staring at a computer screen increased, which caused severe vision problems for many students. What made the situation worse was that the pandemic also prevented many parents from taking their children to see an optometrist, because some families saw their incomes greatly reduced and could no longer afford expensive eye exams and new eyeglasses. Even low-income households with federal health care like Medicaid, which provides free glasses every two years, were helpless if the children damaged their glasses or their prescriptions changed, because buying new glasses at their own expense was out of the question.
“Students need glasses to see what’s on the blackboard and complete their homework, but eyeglasses are prohibitively expensive,” Karen Silberman, Director of Support Services and Special Education at the Mountain View School District in El Monte, who is responsible for supporting special education, explained. “Even families with federal eye insurance are only eligible for one pair of glasses every two years. If the glasses get damaged, many families simply can’t afford to get another pair. That’s why Tzu Chi’s services and the free eyeglasses you give out are such a great gift to these children.”
Glasses Change Lives
In Tzu Chi’s mobile vehicle, the students looked curious but also a little scared. In order to check for any eye diseases, their eyes had to be dilated, but the stinging feeling upon contact with the eye drop and the subsequent blurring of vision made many students hesitant to receive the eye exam.
Deboran Duan, a young optometrist who is already a seasoned veteran of Tzu Chi’s medical outreach program despite her youth, noticed the children’s anxiety and patiently comforted them before this process. She played with them and distracted them by letting them jump around, releasing some of the tension inside the vehicle.
“Providing prescriptions for students and helping them receive vision correction as early as possible can change their lives,” Duan said, full of conviction. “Good eyesight can enhance their desire to learn, making them more willing to stay in school and go for higher education. Being able to see will have a long-term impact on their success in life.”
Jaime Saldivar, a local resident, brought his son and daughter to the vision clinic. His son had broken his glasses, but Saldivar could not afford to purchase another pair.
“No one could afford to see an optometrist and wait forever for an appointment during the pandemic. So it’s been really difficult to get a new pair of glasses for my son,” Saldivar said. “When the school contacted me, and said that Tzu Chi planned to resume their vision clinic, I was so happy that I immediately signed both of my children up. They both need glasses. I really appreciate your help.”
Saldivar’s son, Jaima Saldivar, told the volunteers shyly that he had accidentally broken his glasses. After the eye exam, Jaima couldn’t wait to put on his new glasses.
“Thank you for giving me a pair of new glasses!” Jaima said happily.
All the students served by the clinic and received new glasses could now live in a world they could finally see clearly. The volunteers drove the mobile vehicle to this remote area to serve these impoverished local communities, and gave them eyeglasses that corrected their vision. But in a sense, the volunteers gave the kids far more than just new glasses: thanks to the volunteers’ help, these students could now live and study freely, which ultimately meant having the chance to turn their lives around with the help of education.