Giving the Gift of Sight
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All her life, Jennifer Wanjiru, 16, struggled to make out the words on the blackboard at school. Even though she always sat at the front of the class, she’d find herself squinting. Completing even basic tasks—worksheets, pop quizzes—felt laboriously hard. “I always used to lag behind,” she says.
But that all changed a few months ago, when Jennifer’s school in Nairobi, Kenya, was visited by Sight for Kids (SFK), an innovative program that provides free vision care to low-income students across the globe.
The program, co-founded in 2002 by Johnson & Johnson Vision (JJV) and Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF), has administered free, volunteer-directed vision screenings to more than 42 million children in five countries, including Thailand, the Philippines, India, Kenya and the United States. Today it’s the largest-known program of its kind in the world.
SFK expanded to Kenya in 2014, and since then the program has trained more than 1,000 teachers in and around the nation’s capital of Nairobi on how to identify students with eyesight problems and provide them with basic eye health and hygiene education.
The need, says SFK Kenya Project Chairperson Tanvi Shah, Head of Optometry Services and optometrist at the Lions SightFirst Eye Hospital, is acute: Visual impairment and blindness affect an estimated 1.5 million Kenyans, many of them children. One in five students SFK Kenya encounters requires eye drops and hygiene care to counteract the effects of dust and pollution, while one in 10 needs glasses.
Restoring a child’s eyesight can change their life. “It gives them confidence back,” Tanvi Shah says, “and makes them excited about learning again.”
Jennifer, who received glasses within a few days of her screening, can attest. Now, she’s able to race through exams. And she’s acing them, too. In her 50-person class, “I’m in the top 10,” she says proudly.
For Healthy Vision Month, we share how SFK is putting students like Jennifer on a path to a brighter future, one vision screening at a time.
Providing care and hope to students—and their families
When SFK first got started in Kenya, the team was only able to screen one or two Nairobi schools per week. Eight years later—thanks in large part to investment from JJV—the program serves nearly double that number, visiting two to three schools weekly and screening and following up with up to 1,500 students per school, most of them between the ages of 6 and 12. A mobile treatment unit outfitted with screening equipment, medicines and prescription glasses helps the efforts.
Based on the results of their eye exams, students are referred for follow-up care, given eye drops or medications or fitted for prescription eyeglasses. “We find a lot of children have infections and allergies in their eyes,” says Manoj Shah, LCIF Trustee and former LCIF International Director. “We give them medication right there and then and have a counselor who teaches them how to use it.”
Children who require more advanced or critical care are referred to the Lions SightFirst Eye Hospital, one of the country’s only dedicated eye care centers.
Not long ago, during a screening session in Nairobi, Manoj Shah met a 7-year-old girl in critical need of such help. “She couldn’t walk on her own,” he recalls, “and wasn't ever smiling. When I got close to her, I realized she could barely see my face.”
The girl’s worried parents didn't have the resources to figure out what was wrong with their daughter. “They thought she was cursed,” he says.
In Nairobi, where class sizes can swell to 80 pupils, teaching educators how to identify children with vision problems is critical to students’ success. Educators are encouraged to watch closely for behavior changes: Are students squinting? Acting out? Suddenly doing poorly on exams?ShareDid you like reading this story? Click the heart to show your love.
An exam unraveled the mystery: She had a vision-obstructing cataract—a clouding of the eye’s lens—in her right eye and severe damage to the cornea, the clear portion of the eye’s surface, in her left. SFK took the girl to the hospital immediately, where her cataract was surgically removed.
Someday soon she’ll have a corneal transplant to repair the injury to her left eye. But her vision has already vastly improved.
“You can’t imagine the joy on her face,” he says of seeing her a week after her cataract surgery. “She was smiling again. And her parents were, too. The impact of this work affects the children but also goes deep into the families.”
"Teachers are the first responders"
In Nairobi, where the average class size can easily swell to 80 pupils, teaching educators how to identify children with vision problems is critical to students’ success. “Teachers are the first responders,” Manoj Shah says. “They’re the ones we want to alert parents or refer children to the hospital for testing.”
Tanvi Shah and her colleagues encourage educators to watch closely for behavior changes: Are students squinting? Acting out? Suddenly doing poorly on exams? Reflecting on such questions “can help educators make connections and recognize, ‘Oh, that child may have eye issues.’”
Peter Maina, a math and science educator at a school in Kibera, an under-resourced area of Nairobi, is one of Jennifer’s teachers. When she started taking his class last August, he noticed her frowning at her classmates’ notes. Relying on what he learned from his SFK instruction, he recommended that Jennifer receive a screening.
Jennifer did, and learned she was nearsighted. Since she received her glasses—a pair of trendy tortoiseshells that complement her lively eyes—her teacher has noticed a difference in both her schoolwork and her demeanor.
On a Zoom call, Jennifer pulls up a bit closer to the computer, showing off her frames. “I feel more beautiful, like I look really nice in them,” she says. “And now my friends want glasses!” At the advice of SFK, Jennifer’s little brothers, who are 8 and 10, may soon be screened, too, since nearsightedness tends to run in families.
To date, JJV has donated 2,000 pairs of eyeglasses to SFK Kenya, offering an ever-widening selection of styles. “It’s important that they’re trendy, so the students will want to wear them,” Tanvi Shah says.
With her new glasses—and newfound confidence―Jennifer is letting herself dream big.
While her parents operate a vegetable stand, Jennifer would like to attend college someday to study to become an engineer. “Where I come from we have issues with electricity,” she says. “At 6pm, the power turns off. I want to work on solutions to fix that.”
For now, though, she’s working on cracking the top 3 in Mr. Maina’s class. “I think she can do it,” Maina says, with a smile.
“My world has changed,” Jennifer adds. And all for the better.
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