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Helping schoolchildren find the Vision To Learn

Through Vision To Learn, Austin Beutner brings eye exams and glasses to low-income students, helping them see their way to a better education.

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    Austin Beutner (center, left) started Vision To Learn to supply free eyeglasses to children who need them. Often what is perceived as a learning or behavioral problem with a student is simply a need for eyeglasses, his nonprofit group has found.
    Courtesy of Vision to Learn
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Austin Beutner often shares the story of a young girl who would carry a handheld magnifying glass with her everywhere she went.

“Her entire life and existence was what she could see through that handheld magnifying glass,” he says.

The solution to her vision problems would be relatively simple: a professional eye exam, a prescription and a set of eyeglasses.

But for many young men and women without access to such resources, vision problems go undiagnosed, and can often be misunderstood as behavioral or learning deficiencies.

Mr. Beutner, founder and chairman of the California-based Vision To Learn, wants to change that.

Vision To Learn brings a fully functional clinic to children in schools and community organizations, providing eye examinations and glasses free of charge. If the organization’s optometrists and opticians determine that a child is in need of glasses, the patient is given the chance to select their own frames.

Two weeks later, the glasses are delivered to the school.

According to Vision To Learn, as many as 1.5 million children across the country do not have the glasses necessary to effectively learn, and those in low-income communities are even more likely to lack access to eyeglasses.

The organization, as well as it mission, is closely connected with Beutner’s own story.

Beutner grew up in a working class family and attended public schools, all the while being encouraged by his mother to develop a love for reading.

“I am a lifelong reader because of that,” he says.

Beutner would go on to have a successful career, including a stint as deputy mayor of Los Angeles. But after a mountain biking accident a few years ago left him with a broken neck and a difficult road to recovery, he began to consider a new stage in his life: trying to help others to get the most of school, an experience that laid the foundation for his life’s work.

“In the course of my conversations with educators, I kept learning there was a struggle with kids trying to see the board,” he said.

It didn’t take long for him to learn that 10-15 percent of children struggle from vision problems that interfere with their education. Inspired to do what he could to help, Beutner began to research organizations working on the issue. But he didn’t find a systemic effort to solve the problem.

There were some nonprofit groups that would provide screenings and vouchers for eyeglasses, but in many cases those vouchers were never redeemed.

Beutner thought back to childhood memories of his local library’s bookmobile, and envisioned taking screening and eyeglass services directly to children in need, in their own communities and schools – particularly those in low-income communities.

Today, Vision To Learn operates throughout California and recently expanded to include service delivery in Delaware, boasting a record of providing services to some 27,000 children.

Beutner says that the model of bringing services to a school helps to screen large numbers of students in a single sitting. Having the students in the same place, and providing glasses to larger groups of children who need them, can also remove the stigma that some children associate with wearing glasses.

And the results, he says, have been remarkable.

Students’ grades increase, misdiagnosed behavioral problems are resolved, and teachers laud more effective classroom environments when all students are able to see the board and fully engage in the learning process.

“We give kids a chance to succeed,” he says. “They get help, they do well in school, they get positive reinforcement, and they can succeed. And they will.”

He says that the Vision To Learn model also provides cost-effective care. And while the effort has been primarily philanthropic, Beutner and his team has have worked with legislators and insurance companies in California and now in Delaware to help provide some insurance reimbursements for screenings and eyeglasses, helping to ensure Vision To Learn’s sustainability going forward.

His goal is to make Vision To Learn a national movement, and the organization is currently in discussions with a half-dozen other states about starting there.

When asked what motivates him, Beutner answers with a simple statement.

“I am drawn to problems to try to untie them, unwrap them, find a solution, and make that solution happen,” he says. “This is one of those problems that probably can be solved.”

• For more information, visit http://visiontolearn.org.

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