It’s only the second week of the academic year, but a mobile clinic that offers eye exams and prescription glasses in Manitoba schools is already visiting its second rural school of the year.
Until now, Mobile Vision Care Clinic has been so busy serving high-need Winnipeg schools that it hasn’t been able to expand beyond the city.
“We deal with mostly vulnerable and marginalized people. [students]” clinic founder and optician Sean Sylvestre said Thursday while visiting Ruth Hooker Elementary School in Selkirk, just north of Winnipeg.
“I’m just passionate about making sure that we remove these barriers and ensure that these children have access to care.”
He and his team hope to visit about 100 Manitoba schools this academic year and test approximately 12,000 students. Up to 70 percent will have some vision problem and a third will need glasses.
For most, this will be their first eye exam.
“These are families that maybe don’t have a car, so they’re trying to get to an appointment on the bus or they’re working three jobs,” Sylvestre said.
“So, if we bring it [the clinic] Here we can try them through the licensed optometrist who works with us. And then if they need glasses, we make sure they get them.”
Eight years ago, Peter Correia, principal of Mulvey Elementary School in downtown Winnipeg, approached Sylvestre. Correia had been taking students to eye exams after school, on his free time, because he saw the need.
Together, they developed the vision of a mobile clinic that could offer eye exams and prescription glasses in schools.
They presented the idea to the Winnipeg School Division and the program took off, Correia said.
While it has been in operation since 2017, it is expanding outside of Winnipeg for the first time this year.
Seeing leads to success
Correia, who has been a principal for two decades, sees the benefits firsthand: improvements not only in literacy, but also in attendance, behavior and self-esteem.
“When they get their glasses, we see a big difference in academics… because they can recognize letter sounds and understand words,” he said, adding that early intervention is crucial.
“And then behaviorally…we know that sometimes students unfortunately misbehave because they just don’t want to do the work. They want to divert attention,” he said.
But once vision problems are addressed, “they don’t need to do that because they know, ‘Yes, I can do this.'”
Research has found Connections between vision problems and poor school performance.. While eye exams for children are covered in most provincesan industrial group It is estimated that 25 percent of school-age children have a vision problem. but only 14 percent have had an eye exam at age six.
The Manitoba Mobile Clinic Optometrist receives fees only for exams, not for the sale of glasses. The clinic offers glasses at a 65 percent discount, but for families who don’t have insurance and can’t afford to buy them, the clinic donates them with the support of an international eyeglass foundation.
Sylvestre has a long waiting list of rural and First Nations schools to visit. He would love to expand, but he needs more optometrists interested in joining his team.
“If you can’t see, you should probably get glasses.”
Joe Reader, 8, a student at Mulvey School, says he loves reading “big” books like encyclopedias. He got glasses after an eye exam at school two years ago.
“I see things that aren’t there when I take them off, and they also look a little blurry. When I wear my glasses, that’s not the case,” he said.
Her mother, Kaori Matuo, said she is grateful that the mobile eye clinic detected her problem in time.
“We asked [if] He can see or not and he would say, ‘Yes, yes,'” she said.
“So we thought he had no problems, and then he got an eye exam at school and they gave him glasses, and we were surprised.”
Her classmate Betel Kelem, 8, also received her glasses after an eye exam at the mobile clinic.
“I picked out some glasses and these were perfect for me,” he said. “If you can’t see, you should probably get glasses.”
Back at Ruth Hooker School, seven-year-old Elsa Eleazu discovered she needs glasses after her exam.
“When he’s far away, I can’t [see]. When I’m around, I can do it,” she said.
She tried on several pairs, but chose a blue pair because her favorite Disney princess, who shares her name, wears a blue dress.
‘Something very magical’
Principal Kristine Duke watched excited students pass by the testing stations and said she’s grateful the mobile clinic is leaving Winnipeg and reaching rural schools like hers.
“We have a large indigenous population here (between 70 and 80 percent declared) and we also have recently arrived families,” he said.
“So we have families that may not have easy access to ophthalmologists, family doctors, or funding for things like that, so this is critical.”
Sylvestre, who has been nationally recognized and at the provincial level for the mobile clinic program, he said he was moved by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action in 2015. He sees this work as his contribution.
“We fundamentally believe that vision care and adequate vision is a fundamental right for all Canadians,” he said.
Plus, “there’s something special about working with students who don’t know they can’t see the difference in their lives,” she said.
“When you help change that… there’s something very magical about that.”