Jessica Shortall, TOMS Director of Sight Giving, joined the TOMS family in 2009. She has been an integral part of helping launch TOMS Sight Giving and a vocal advocate for our Giving Partners that TOMS works with to help restore sight in 13 countries around the world. This World Sight Day, she's excited to share with you why it's important to wear your shades inside and #BESHADY. Today, she shares why we're being shady for access to education.
In the case of children and education, addressing visual impairment is really important. Some studies show that 80% of what a child learns in the first 12 years of life is through vision (Gustafoson, Kinne & Strawhacker, 2001). But there is one big barrier to getting glasses and other eye care to kids who need it: children with visual impairment are not wearing signs that read “I have visual impairment,” and they don’t tend to seek out eye care. Often, kids don’t even realize that they need glasses. What usually happens is that the child starts to struggle in his or her school performance. Some kids withdraw or give up and others act out because they’re frustrated or bored. To teachers and even parents, this can look like a behavior problem – not a vision problem.
Now, let’s take that scenario and place it in a Native American community in New Mexico. Here, you have families who live 30 or even 100 miles from the nearest eye care provider. Many of these families are also living in areas with really high unemployment rates, where many hard-working parents have low-income jobs and little or no insurance coverage. The gas money alone, to get to the eye doctor and back, can be an insurmountable barrier – not to mention that getting glasses requires not just one, but two visits.
On top of this, our lead Sight Giving Partner, Seva Foundation, tells us that Native American children also have higher refractive error (blurry vision which can be corrected with glasses) than the general population. This means that they need vision care even more.
This is a tricky problem. But solving difficult problems is what TOMS’ Giving Partners – in shoes and in sight – are all about. The greater the barriers, the more determined they are to overcome them to bring lasting change to communities and people in need.
That’s why our Sight Giving Partners Seva Foundation and Helen Keller International have joined forces to launch the American Indian Sight Initiative, a program bringing vision care to Native American communities and schools in New Mexico.
I recently got to catch up with Angie Holstoi-Nez, program manager for HKI’s ChildSight®, at the end of a long day of screening kids at a school in New Mexico. In talking to her, I realized how carefully this program looks at all those barriers and knocks them down, one by one. They bring the eye care to the kids. They go into the schools and screen everybody, to make sure no one is missed. Then they come back with an eye doctor, who examines and treats the kids who need treatment.
It’s not only about first-time glasses, either. Some kids are making do for far too long with outdated prescriptions and broken frames and lenses. One student had super-glued his lens back into his frames, and in the process covered a lot of the lens with glue, making it hard to see through. Angie also met a boy who had parted his long hair to one side, so that it covered one of his eyes. When they examined him, they realized that his glasses had only one lens, and he was using his hair to cover up the empty half of the glasses.
Without the support of ChildSight and Seva Foundation, very few of these kids would get eye care. Without this program, the parents would probably make an appointment with Indian Health Services, which has a backlog of 2-3 months. If that didn’t deter them, the parent would have to drive the child somewhere between 30 and 100 miles – one way! – to the IHS. Then they’d have to go back again once the glasses were ready. These barriers are difficult – and expensive – enough to keep many children from getting the eye care they need.
Hearing these stories in Angie’s own words drove home to me just how important it is to bring this vision care into the schools, so that no child is left out because of ability to pay, or even the ability to afford the drive to the eye doctor.