POINCIANA – The tone in Luis Alvarez’s voice was one of authority, and leadership. As the children stood in line outside of Palmetto Elementary School, the principal was on hand to make sure the kids were following his instructions.
At the same time, it was hard to hide the wide smile that Alvarez continuously flashed as he watched the children light up with excitement as they were handed a free book.
Looking at the two vans parked in front of Palmetto, Alvarez marveled at the long line of young students who were eagerly awaiting those books.
“In this one, all of the children get a free book,” he said. “They use it as a tool for education to talk about the eyes.”
On Wednesday and Thursday, the students at Palmetto Elementary benefited from something they might not otherwise have been able to afford: a visit from a 45-foot long mobile eyecare clinic, nicknamed “Eyenstein,” which provided the kids with complimentary eye exams and new eyewear, provided by Transitions Optical and VSP Vision Care.
“We screened over 550 students here at Palmetto, and we identified 150 students who had an undetected vision problem,” said Elida Molina Rodrigues, a vision screener with Eyenstein. “They get a full eye exam and we’re able to make the glasses on board.”
Eyenstein is a mobile eye care unit developed by Transitions Optical and VSP, which travels acround the county, visiting schools and giving students the opportunity to get free, comprehensive eye exams. The students who need corrective eyewear are able to pick out new eyeglasses on the spot, fitted with Transitions lenses.
At the same time, a mobile literacy outreach initiative called Bess the Book Bus was also at the school, distributing free books to students and conducting read-alouds to encourage them to develop a lifelong passion for reading.
For the students at Palmetto, this has been a terrific gift, said the school’s assistant principal, Jennifer Blackburn.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “They come out and give free eye exams, and now they’re giving eyeglasses to the ones that need it.”
Palmetto got these visits because the teachers and students worked together to take part in a community outreach contest sponsored by Transitions Optical, which encouraged schools in Florida to submit essays on what they would miss seeing most if they didn’t have eyesight. The visits from Eyenstein and Bess the Book Bus was the Grand Prize.
“We identified a couple of dozen schools, and we invited those schools to participate in an Eye Pledge Challenge, and we asked them what they would do if they didn’t have eyes,” Rodrigues said. “We were very impressed with their response at Palmetto. They had all their teachers involved, which we had never seen before. We were very pleased with them.”
Likewise, Alvarez was impressed that his school was getting these visits, because he knew some of his students, if not most of them, simply couldn’t afford the cost of eye care.
“This van travels the entire United States,” he said. “We’ve had 155-plus kids who needed a one-on-one eye test.”
A lot of parents simply wouldn’t have been able to afford to get their children’s eyes tested otherwise, said Tony Claudio, a volunteer at the school.
“I saw three of the parents, and the mothers were crying, saying ‘I couldn’t afford to take them to the eye doctor,’ ” he said. “We’re talking about a lot of money that was invested in this. It’s fantastic.”
It’s also a big help, Alvarez said, that when the students get those free books, it encourages them to use their eyes – and read. And, he added, to enjoy those books immensely.
That’s why the two buses travel together, Rodrigues said.
“Every single one of these students will receive a free book from Bess the Book Bus, which goes all around the country and promotes literacy and reading,” she said. “They’re new books, they’re not used books, and they’re top titles that the kids come in and ask for.”
Besides, she added, the two vans are “very complimentary to one another. We’re here both to promote eye care – and literacy.”
Prior to the visits by the two vans, students at Palmetto got visions screenings from Prevent Blindness Florida, which utilized the breakthrough vision screening device Spot, developed by PediaVision.
Prevent Blindness Florida, a non-profit group, has estimated that 80 percent of what a child learns is visual.
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