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Many high school students worry about their grades, their friendships, and their futures. Mary, a junior living in Elizabeth, New Jersey, has another thing to worry about: seeing in class. 

Mary is nearly blind, with a prescription that makes it difficult to see far away with her naked eyes. “She doesn’t see anything without her glasses,” said her mother.  

“I can’t walk around without glasses at school. I can’t see far away.”

Adding to her challenges, Mary moved with her family from Honduras to New Jersey in 2019, after her father passed away. She is just beginning to learn English, but she is a motivated student who is diligent about doing her homework and loves attending class. She hopes to one day become a kindergarten teacher. 

“I like everything about school. The teachers are very good people. They always support me and help me with whatever I need. If I don’t understand something, they just tell me to come after class and they explain things to me,” Mary said. 

Broken glasses mean broken dreams when replacement costs are a barrier 

Even with such a positive attitude, it was devastating for both Mary and her mother when her glasses broke. Replacing them with a new pair would put a huge financial strain on her family. She told her mother that she would try to get by using her old glasses, but her mother could tell that it was a struggle.  

“When I looked at her like that, struggling to do her homework, I told her not to force her eyesight, because those glasses were no longer useful,” said Mary’s mother. “She asked, ‘When am I going to get my new glasses?’ And I was like ‘my God, what am I going to do?’” 

Mary stopped attending school in person, even though she wanted nothing more than to be in class with her friends. She was embarrassed about her vision struggles. Like many students struggling with vision loss, her inability to see was impacting her social and emotional wellbeing, and getting in the way of normal life. 

“I can’t walk around without glasses at school. I can’t see far away. [Friends] would tell me, ‘Go to school. We’re going to help you. We are your support,’ but I was ashamed, because I wasn’t going to let them do everything for me either,” Mary said. 

Her mother tried to console her but felt helpless watching as Mary tried to keep up with her homework. Mary was falling behind in class and getting more and more upset. 

“I missed everything. My friends, my teachers, doing homework, writing. I missed everything,” Mary said. 

Connecting families to vital vision services 

After two weeks of absences, Mary’s school sent a letter asking why she wasn’t attending class. Her mother reached out to Monica Sarmiento, the school counselor, and explained the situation with Mary’s glasses.  

“The counselor asked, ‘But why didn’t you tell me that before so I could help you? It’s been a few weeks and we didn’t know why you weren’t attending. We are going to help you with everything,’” Mary said. 

Ms. Sarmiento was not only sympathetic, but quickly took action to connect Mary with Helen Keller Intl, which works to reach underserved students who lack access to vision care. 

“Mary has so much potential, and it was very sad to find out that her financial struggles were stopping her from coming to school. As a counselor, I felt very fortunate to be able to connect Mary to additional resources,” said Monica Sarmiento. “Our partnership with Helen Keller Intl has been a blessing. It allows us to refer students like Mary who are in need. Thanks to our collaboration, I can connect many students who can benefit from their services and have extra ways to help them be successful.” 

Helen Keller worked with Mary to screen her vision, assess the prescription, and order a new pair of glasses – free of charge. The lenses Mary needs are so strong that they must be custom created in a lab, which makes them particularly expensive. Helen Keller covered these higher costs and made it possible for Mary to see clearly again. 

Thanks to the intervention of Mary’s counselor, her family was connected to services that removed the cost barrier to getting her back in school. For many students, it’s not only the high cost of glasses that gets in the way, but a lack of awareness of the available resources. Helen Keller partners with schools to reach families like Mary’s. 

“I can see well. I can do everything that I did before!” 

Mary now has new glasses with stylish blue frames and she is back in class with her friends. 

Her mother is also thrilled and advises other parents in similar situations to have faith and trust.  “Look for people who help you. Search for those organizations that exist.” 

Help other students like Mary reach their true potential.