Caloosa Belle

Vision program opens doors for students

Our eyesight is one of the senses we all most rely on from the time we’re born. Over the years, many people find that their sight is not what it should be, so we learn to rely on glasses – tools that make up for a deficit in the quality of our sight.

But how does a young child, who has no comparison to their own vision, know when they’re not seeing properly?

They rely on the adults in their lives – parents and teachers, mainly.

Elaine Montane is a Hendry County teacher for the visually impaired with 33 years experience – 31 years in Connecticut, one in Virginia and now one in Hendry County/Glades. This past year she has taken under her wing students from both Hendry and Glades counties. She visits her students at their schools and has an office with the School Board in the old Courthouse.

Samuel Aguilar is a fourth grader at Country Oaks Elementary and one of her success stories. His mother, Marisa Martinez, felt like he was just a average kid who wasn’t too keen on going to school.

But this year Samuel was assessed through Ms. Montane’s program and was diagnosed with bilateral amblyopia and received his first pair of glasses.

“Now he’ s on the A-B honor roll!” she said. “He used to get C’s, but never an A! And now he likes to go to school.”

He used to make excuses every day not to go to school, she continued. Now he’s up early and the first thing he does after his shower is always to put on his glasses. He’s so happy and now he sees so much! Samuel used to just watch cartoons and play. With his vision improved, now he loves to play with Legos and is even playing soccer.

She sees the happiness in him; the program and his glasses have changed him, made him more responsible. His mom says he’s a “100 percent new kid.”

This is how the program works. Early in the school year, a van with medical equipment comes to Hendry County to assess eligible students. The kids receive their exam and pick out glasses they like right on the van. Then they receive their own pair in early January.

It’s an “amazing process,” according to Ms. Montane. In order to be assessed, students must have no access to medical care.

Last year, she said 175 students evaluated locally. Of those designated as visually impaired, she said about 25 have a condition known as bilateral amblyopia.

Being near or far sighted is not the issue. Bilateral amblyopia is a separate condition that affects the vision process and often can be corrected by wearing glasses. If the child does not wear the corrective lenses, the condition will be permanent, she said.

The good news is that if it is caught and treated by the time the child is about eight years old, it can be helped.

Seems like an easy fix. All that’s needed is a proper diagnosis and the proper lenses.

Another problem she has run into, though, is that the corrective lenses don’t seem to work immediately, so kids get frustrated and don’t want to wear them. Parents get frustrated and don’t make them wear their glasses. The end result is that the child’s sight is lost permanently.

The child must wear their glasses all day every day for them to work. In several months Ms. Montane said the student can make huge progress in their vision and grades. Their handwriting becomes legible, their grades come up. Kids just don’t realize how different their school experience – and their life – can be with proper eyesight.

She added that the community needs to understand the affects of poor eyesight, and family and teachers need to work together.

The exams, glasses and referrals are made by the Florida Heiken Children’s Vision Program LLC for school children. Created in 1992 by the Dade County Optometric Association, the organization merged with the Miami Lighthouse in 2007. In 2010, the group was registered with the State of Florida, expanding vision health services to low-income children statewide.

The organization started in Miami and expanded statewide in 2010, providing exams, glasses and referrals.

As a hearing impaired person, Mr. Montane understands how children are affected by impaired senses. Parents need to understand that this condition can be “life or death” for a student’s future, Ms. Montane said. When she was a child, teachers thought she was lazy, daydreaming. The fact was, she couldn’t hear. Once her hearing deficit was understood, a new world opened up for her.

That’s what she wants to do here through this program. Help students with physical impediments achieve their potential.