Wed | Oct 21, 2020

Vision for life – Cornerstone Jamaica helps students to see and learn better

Published:Saturday | March 21, 2020 | 12:00 AMDanae Hyman/Gleaner Writer
Sydney Lehman from Indiana University School of Optometry and a volunteer with Cornerstone Jamaica’s ‘See Better. Learn Better’ programme is animated as she assesses a student.
Dr Natalie Decook, of Indiana University School of Optometry and a volunteer with Cornerstone Jamaica’s ‘See Better. Learn Better’ programme, conducts a vision test during a November 6, 2019 eye-care clinic.
Jonathan King, a volunteer, conducts an eye test using the Snellen chart.
Tekara Bryan, a grade six student of the Mount Airy Primary and Infant School, had constant headaches and trouble seeing the board before she was fitted with glasses.
Indiana University School of Optometry's Maddie Witthoft conducts a visual acuity test on a student from the Little London Primary School.
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WHAT STARTED out through the observation of children on the street, turned into a passion project for Gary Robinson, founder of Cornerstone Jamaica and its flagship programme, ‘See Better. Learn Better’.

Partnering with the Rotary Club of Negril, Mission of Sight and Indiana University School of Optometry, more than 3,500 students have been screened, and 550 have been prescribed glasses for vision correction.

“Seven or eight years ago, I was driving to Negril and I saw these beautiful children outside waiting for their rides and nobody was wearing eyeglasses, and I said, ‘Gee, isn’t that wonderful? No one needs eyeglasses’. That was, however, my Chicago brain. When I turned on my Jamaica brain, I realised that, it’s not that they didn’t need them, it’s because they didn’t have access to them,” Robinson said. In time, he would come to realise that the issue was bigger than accessing eyeglasses.

Arvel Grant, chief executive officer of the Caribbean Council for the Blind, three years ago announced that Jamaica has one of the lowest rates of optometrists to patients globally. The ratio of Jamaicans to optometrists is 180,000 to one. While, in the case of Guyana, the ratio is 30,000 Guyanese to one optometrist; Barbados, 27,000 Barbadians to one optometrist; Trinidad and Tobago, 13,000 to one optometrist; the United Kingdom, 5,600 to one optometrist, and Canada, 1,300-plus to one optometrist.

This discovery led Robinson to make a bold move: seek out a high-tech screener, whom he later flew to Jamaica from Mission of Sight in Ohio, United States, to begin the testing on the student population in Westmoreland. This move saw the birth of the ‘See Better. Learn Better’ initiative.

The programme provides free, comprehensive and sustainable vision care for the purpose of improving literacy, learning, and the future of Jamaican schoolchildren. For Robinson, poor vision in children, which prevents them from reaching their optimum level in school, is what contributes to the high crime rate in Jamaica. Screenings begin at the primary level, where it is thought that intervention will have the greatest impact.

CHANGE THE WORLD

“There [are] a variety of eye diseases that our team can discover at a young age of a child and when its prevented at that young age they will have a lifetime of vision. Older children, by the time they are in high school, you know how you used to see, but when you’re young, you just think that’s how the world is and a pair of glasses can just change the world for these children,” said Marjie Sandlow, president of Cornerstone Jamaica.

“We also find health issues in eyes, some of the young children have cataracts and we send them to an ophthalmologist and they can have it removed so they won’t go blind, wherein they would have before,” Sandlow added.

From the programme’s initial assessments, it was realised that at least 25-30 per cent of the student population in schools visited needed an eye exam and, after further examination, that 25 per cent jumped to 46 per cent.

“We know there is a lack of opportunity down here, but we want to arm these children with their best possible success. We realised along the way that, not only did the kids not know they had a vision problem, they thought the world was just a hazy place, but the parents also did not know,” Robinson said.

“This is a fixable problem, we are not trying to cure cancer. This is a relatively inexpensive problem to fix. For US$1.2 million, we can cover every primary school on the island,” he added.

One recipient of See Better. Learn Better’s initiative, Tekara Bryan, a grade six student of the Mount Airy Primary and Infant School said, before getting her glasses, she was plagued with constant headaches whenever she strained her eyes.

“I could not see the board properly. Every minute, I had to ask the teacher if I could go up to the front of the class and when I got there, I would start seeing the board better. [After I received my glasses], I started doing better in my class and I started to see and read properly,” Bryan said.

She added that, even though some of her classmates mocked her for wearing glasses, she has been much happier with it.

danae.hyman@gleanerjm.com

To donate, volunteer or learn more about the ‘See Better. Learn Better’ initiative, visit cornerstonejamaica.org. Have a good story you’d like to share? Email us at goodheart@gleanerjm.com.