"In Canada, only 14% of children receive a comprehensive eye exam by Grade 1." -- National Coalition for Vision Health.

"Students who do not read proficiently by the end of Grade 3 are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers." -- Donald J. Hernandez, 2011. Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation 

For six years, staff at Roseau Valley School (RVS) have been working to counter the statistics above by calling for Canada’s only full-time mobile eye clinic to visit Dominion City.

The clinic is in such demand in high-needs Winnipeg schools, it has been unable to expand to beyond the perimeter to help rural and Indigenous students. 

That all changed on Monday, September 18th when Mobile Vision Care Clinic (MVCC) rolled into Dominion City, the last stop on a tour that included Thompson, Brandon and Selkirk. 

"The idea of the Mobile Vision Clinic was one-stop-shop," explains Jason Mateychuk, principal of RVS. "They come in, they test your sight. If you need glasses, then basically you're right there picking frames, and they had a really wide assortment of them. Then they're fitting you for them, and within about two weeks, you'll get the glasses. To me it wasn't just identifying the need, it was addressing the need."

Resource teacher Kim Miller drove the project said Mateychuk. 

"She identified in her job as resource teacher this is what we need to do to take it to that next level in terms of really helping the kids with what's going to help them be successful in the classroom."

The word is spreading among Manitoba educators that with glasses their students are now seeing, reading, learning and behaving better in the classroom, said MVCC founder and trained optician Sean Sylvestre in a news release.

Nearly half the student body at RVS was able to have their vision tested.

"Students had to have a consent [form] signed for them to get their eyes checked," said Jennifer Collette, vice principal of RVS. "Students who brought back their consent form got to get their eyes checked on that day. You know what? Forms were rolling in the last minute. We were welcoming all the forms to come in, we tested as many kids as we possibly could. I think it was somewhere around 50%."

According to a news release, 70% of children tested through the clinic are getting their first comprehensive eye exam ever; and on average, 30% need glasses.

Mateychuk believes having the clinic on-site made it easier for kids to accept help.

"I think when you're able to show this is just a built-in part of school that gave them that strength to say, yeah, it's OK to say I need glasses. It doesn't make me less of a person, or less of a member of our school. It's just another part of what we do here. I think it also empowered them in that way too."

Collette noticed that kids were excited about choosing new glasses.

"I think that was a really fun part. Just peeking my head in there and seeing kids looking with their friends at frames. The frames were really high quality. They probably had at least 350 styles of frames, really modern. Students were excited to say, I really like the pair of glasses I'm picking."

The Mobile Vision Care Clinic were excellent with the kids points out Collette. 

"They would be looking, and they'd be like, you know what? Try those ones on, and they would fit perfectly, and it would be an amazing match. I think it boosts kids' confidence and makes them feel good."

Providing access to vision testing removes huge barriers for RVS students: access and affordability.

"When you think about being in southern Manitoba, [the] closest optometrist is St. Pierre, maybe from here, Winkler. You know not everybody has access to a vehicle. Also, there's parents who are working all summer, and it's hard to get that time off too to take your kids sometimes. I think that's a really important piece where we could just say we're offering it here." 

Glasses are sold at close to cost. For those families without insurance and who cannot afford glasses, MVCC donates them. In the last five years the organization has worked with an international eye glass foundation to donate $500,000 in glasses. 

For those who wonder if MVCC is competing with optometrists who sell eyeglasses, the answer is no.

MVCC emphasizes these are children who are underserved and, if not for the clinic, would not get glasses at all. In Thompson recently 60% needed glasses. In fact, the long view of what MVCC is doing is creating a whole new generation of consumers with glasses who will likely continue to need the services of an optometrist after they leave school and get glasses all their adult life. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Sylvestre says they would love to expand the service but currently MVCC only has one optometrist who has signed up to serve the underserved.

"Maybe there are optometrists out there close to retirement, maybe there are young optometrists who want to make a real difference to help our most vulnerable youth. We would love to see them join us so we can expand this to more communities."

For more information on the Mobile Vision Care Clinic, click here.

With files from Candace Derksen

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