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Halloween this year was a day for extra celebration at the Academy for College Preparation and Career Exploration in Brooklyn, New York. A short assembly in the morning announced a milestone moment for Helen Keller Intl – the one millionth New York City student vision screening.  

Our one millionth student, Ajanie King, is a charismatic, soft-spoken seventh grader who has already managed to charm all of the school’s teachers and most of his peers. He has big political aspirations to become president of the United States. Right now, he’s focused on winning his first political race: seventh-grade class representative for student council. Ajanie knows that having the right vision care is essential to keeping him on that path. “When I was a kid, I would always sit really, really close to a TV screen. When I put my glasses on, that changed.” 

Helping students overcome barriers to clear vision 

Uncorrected vision affects an estimated 1 in 4 children growing up in poverty. Without clear vision, a child may struggle to see the board or computer, learn, and fully engage with their teachers and peers. Helen Keller eliminates the primary barriers to vision care – access and expense – by partnering with schools to provide students with on-site vision services at no cost to the student or their families. 

42 states require regular vision screenings for students, but many school districts are unable to secure the budget to screen the youngest members of society. For just $50 per student, Helen Keller bridges this gap by partnering with schools to reach every child with a vision screening, and when needed, a pair of prescription eyeglasses. 

From screening to seeing 

Helen Keller’s approach to vision care is unique because everything is done on site, alleviating stresses of time and transportation. We followed Ajanie through the Helen Keller screening process. First, he was screened by reading letters off the Snellen Eye Chart. Students like Ajanie who can’t read the lines correctly – usually around 30% of students fail – move on to the next stage, where they are screened by a licensed optometrist. In Ajanie’s case, he met with Dr. On Lam. After Dr. Lam determined Ajanie’s correct prescription, it was time to pick out his new glasses. 

Thanks to Warby Parker, students are able to pick their own glasses from a wide variety of stylish frames. They receive their new prescription glasses a few weeks later, delivered to the school, at no cost. 

Regular eye exams are key 

Dr. Lam reminds us that giving a child a new pair of glasses is only the first step. “Even if they have glasses, you should really get your glasses checked every year. [Ajanie] is a perfect example…he’s jumped five lines. He would not have passed a driver’s license text with [his current glasses].” Dr. Lam makes sure to communicate this to students and caregivers to educate them about the importance of eye health. 

…when we catch them, and help them see what they’re supposed to see, it just changes their world.

Dr. On Lam

In around 5% of screenings, the optometrist may find symptoms of a more complicated eye condition. These students are then referred to a local eye care provider partner for a full eye examination. 

The power of a pair of eyeglasses 

“We get a lot of kids that have just come to America, and a lot of kids don’t even know that they need glasses,” explained Dr. Lam. “The great thing about this program is when we catch them, and help them see what they’re supposed to see, it just changes their world.” 

In addition to partnering with schools, Helen Keller strives to reach vulnerable children and adults where they are – in community-based service programs, homeless shelters, and public housing. Our vision teams are at work in California, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York and have screened more than 2.1 million students since our start nearly three decades ago. 

Before leaving, Ajanie shared some words of wisdom with us. “Glasses can be broken very easily. I know because of my experience. You should take care of them because those are the things that make you see clearly.” 

Help children like Ajanie realize their true potential.