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The need for glasses is great, but many kids go without

Organizations working to provide free glasses to children in poor communities estimate that thousands go without glasses each year. Leaders of these groups say parents struggling to make ends meet often don't have the money or the time to deal with their kids' vision needs.

There are several nonprofit groups working in this field; one of the largest in L.A. County is Vision to Learn. Founded two years ago by former L.A. Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner, Vision to Learn focuses on elementary school students, and works with the L.A. Unified School District. It says it has provided more than 13,000 free pairs of glasses since it began operations. 

"The average prescription and glasses we give out is 20/300, which in layman’s terms means that if I stood in front of the classroom and help up my hand they couldn’t see the five fingers on my hand," said Beutner. "That’s how impaired the average child we help is. So they are not learning."

Another group, ChildSight Los Angeles, is part of a national effort run by Helen Keller International. So far this year it says it has given away about 2,000 pairs of glasses.

But no matter how much his and other groups do, it’s never enough, said ChildSight Los Angeles program director Jorge Valdez.

"We don’t visit every school out there and every district, so the need is there," said Valdez.

Experts say there are no reliable estimates on exactly how many kids who need glasses don't get them. 

California requires school districts to provide visual screenings, but Valdez said that in a lot of low income communities, things often don't progress beyond the initial exam.

"After that a letter goes home that they need glasses," he said, adding, "I’m sure some parents do follow and get them the eye exams and the glasses, but the majority of them don’t."

For many families it comes down to simple economics, he added. 

"An average pair of eye classes runs about $268, and that is a lot of money for families nowadays," Valdez said.

For families on Medi-Cal, the cost of eye screenings and glasses are covered for those under 21, but Valdez said cost is not the only barrier. For example, he said parents working two jobs often can’t find the time to take their child to the optometrist.

A lack of readily accessible services adds another obstacle, said Dr. Ranjeet Bajwa, a member of the board of the California Optometric Association

"Access to basic care, specifically eye exams, is very severely limited" in low-income communities in L.A. County, he said.

The need was evident last month when dozens of students at Montebello's Applied Technology Center high school lined up to have ChildSight Los Angeles staffers test their eyes. 

The students included some who had never had glasses before, some who lost or broke their glasses and some who needed a new prescription.

The teens who spoke to KPCC were vague about why they did not have glasses, or why lost ones had not been replaced. Valdez suggested that many were embarrassed to talk about their families' financial situation.

Four weeks later, the ChildSight team returned to the school to pass out 43 pairs of glasses. 

Fifteen-year-old Nathan Medina was thrilled to get his. He selected black Wayfarer style frames, like his dad's.

"Seeing before was hard, I had to squint," said Medina. "Now it’s a lot better. I can see just the tiniest details and everything now. It’s pretty cool."

Other groups working to provide free vision services include InfantSEE, Sight for Students, and the California Vision Foundation.

The Affordable Care Act will provide some help in the struggle to provide glasses to every child. Under the federal health law, all insurance policies in California must include eye exams and glasses for kids as part of their benefit packages. The federal law also expanded access to Medi-Cal, so even more children will have access to government-subsidized vision tests and glasses.