The students at North Miami Elementary got a two-sided surprise on the morning of May 23, as Florida Panthers mascot Stanley C. Panther arrived in a newly refurbished, bright-red mobile eye unit bearing his bespectacled, fuzzy face to provide them with free exams and eyeglasses.
As part of the organization's Community Champions Grant Program, the Panthers Foundation awarded a donation of $25,000 to the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind & Visually Impaired's Florida Heiken Children's Vision Program back on Nov. 24. Those funds then went towards the creation of the co-branded mobile clinic, which will help Miami Lighthouse reach its goal of serving 24,000 disadvantaged students this year.
North Miami Principal Debra Dubin said the glasses will have a "great effect" on her students.
"When they get their glasses, everything changes for them," Dubin said. "The day they get their glasses, their eyes light up. It's like a miracle… Then when they go back to class, they're proud to show them off… They can see their teacher clearly and see the work that's on the board… Their grades also begin to improve because now they truly can read, see and enjoy everything."
According to research conducted by the American Optometric Association, 1-in-4 children have vision-related problems that could be having a negative effect on their performance in school. In looking at those findings, these issues can also manifest in behavioral and emotional problems.
Founded in 1931 as the Florida Association of Workers for the Blind, Miami Lighthouse created the Florida Heiken Children's Vision Program to ensure that disadvantaged schoolchildren who fail their mandated vision screenings receive access to further examinations and free eyewear.
With the introduction of the Panthers-branded unit, their mobile fleet has now grown to five.
"Because of the Florida Panthers Foundation, we are able now to expand our capacity to travel to schools for our optometrists to provide students with dilated eye exams," said Virginia Jacko, Miami Lighthouse's President & CEO. "Because we travel to 500 schools, we're able to bring primary eyecare directly to patients at school. More children will now be able to read because of the Florida Panthers Foundation helping us increase our overall capacity with this mobile unit."
While students need to take physical exams before each school year, they are not required to take an eye exam. And while schools do vision screenings - "You know, can you see the big 'E' on the chart?," Jacko said - they do not provide children will follow-up care, such as glasses.
"If parents are too busy to take the child to a doctor after they fail their screening, what good is it?" Jacko said. "When we bring our mobile unit to the school and the child has failed the school's screening, they are immediately given a dilated eye exam. Within two weeks, one of our opticians is dispensing the glasses. Then the child can then do better. That's been proven."
Florida Board Certified Optometric Physician & Miami Lighthouse Board Director Dr. Alan Levitt, who helped found the Heiken Vision Program in 1992, said mobile units were added when the organization realized that many lower-income families didn't have time to spare for office visits.
"We realized we had to go to the schools and deliver the care," Levitt said.
After being issued their new glasses, students are given pamphlets to take home and give to their parents. This literature is filled with information about what happened during their child's exam, as well as what to look for in the future in order to help maintain their improved vision.
With each comprehensive exam taking a little less than an hour, Levitt believes that the arrival of another mobile unit will help the program reach an additional 2,500-3,000 students each year.
"These glasses can be lifechanging," Levitt said. "If you can't see, you can't pay attention and you can't perform academically. Eighty percent of learning is visual. Only 20 percent comes through our ears. Imagine this frustration of sitting in a classroom: Everything's going around and you're trying to learn from what's on the board. You have computers, tablets and print-out material, but you can't function. With these new glasses, we are able to see children blossom."
Entering its fourth season, the Community Champions Grant program, which is presented by Moss & Associates, LLC and the Moss Foundation, is committed to donating $5 million to local 501(c)(3) organizations or government agencies serving South Florida over a five-year period.
"We're very excited to be partnering with Miami Lighthouse for the Blind & Visually Impaired to unveil their new mobile unit that's going to be able to provide underserved children with eye exams and glasses," said Lauren Simone, Executive Director of the Florida Panthers Foundation. "We're so excited to be a part of this and that our Community Champions Grant supported such an important cause."
To apply for a Community Champions Grant during the 2019-20 season, click HERE.