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For many kids with academic or behavioral problems, glasses could change everything

For many kids with academic or behavioral problems, glasses could change everything
An eye exam might be the first step in transforming a child's life for the better. (Photo courtesy Boys & Girls Clubs of America)

Doctor of optometry Priti Patel knows how quickly and profoundly a simple pair of glasses can transform a child's life. She's seen it firsthand.

"I once examined a 6-year-old boy," Patel recalled. "He walked into the exam lane very quiet and timid … One eye was clearer than the other and he was having a hard time interpreting what he was actually seeing. At the follow-up exam, [he] ran into the exam lane, jumped into the chair and had a huge smile on his face — he had just tried on his new glasses. The improved vision ... made a huge positive impact on this child's ability to interact and learn."

According to the American Optometric Association, a large nonprofit organization of optometric doctors and professionals, academic and behavioral problems in young people are often linked to vision issues. Additionally, childhood myopia is on the rise. So a charitable partnership between Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) and retail eyewear brand America's Best Contacts & Eyeglasses is especially timely, as is the program's arrival in Los Angeles as a new school year begins.

"One of the keys to preventing learning and behavioral issues is early detection and intervention for any sort of uncorrected vision," said Patel, who is also vice president of physician practice management at National Vision, the company that operates America's Best. "The symptoms [of] Attention Deficit Disorder and uncorrected vision can sometimes be similar. To distinguish between the two, it's important to have a comprehensive eye exam."

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That's why the BGCA-America's Best partnership offers free vision screenings to Club members and then, based on screening results, a complimentary eye exam by a licensed optometrist at a nearby America's Best location. If a child needs prescription glasses, America's Best also provides them — free of charge.

Through the partnership, more than 11,000 children have received vision screenings in cities including Atlanta, Portland and Dallas since 2015. The program made its Southern California Debut in Anaheim in February and in L.A. at the end of last month. One of the first Boys & Girls Clubs where screenings are available this school year is in Whittier.

"Sometimes kids don't understand what's going on, and not being able to see well definitely has an impact both on their confidence or them feeling a little bit different," said Oscar Hernandez, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Whittier. "Giving them the opportunity to see well, I think, enhances their ability to focus."

Good vision is crucial to children as they work their way through school, where reading, writing, computer and chalkboard work are daily requirements. According to optometrists, kids who unknowingly struggle from uncorrected vision may avoid visual work, muddle through with lower levels of comprehension or ability, or suffer discomfort and fatigue.

According to recent research by the American Optometric Association, one in four children has a visual problem that affects their learning and may exhibit behaviors associated with distractibility and hyperactivity, or even be labeled as having ADD, when all they really need is a simple pair of glasses.

So how do eye exams actually work?

"The optometrist performs a series of tests to measure where and how the light focuses in the eye," Patel said. "If the light focuses in front of the retina, it is called nearsightedness or myopia. If the focus is behind the eye, it is called farsightedness or hyperopia."

What's been widely described by researchers as a myopia epidemic among young people has been linked to spending more time reading on smartphones and spending less time outdoors. This phenomenon is most apparent where poverty is highest, but often goes undiagnosed due to children not receiving annual eye exams.

To date, 94% of the children provided eye exams under the BGCA-America's Best partnership had trouble seeing and received a free pair of prescription glasses, according to America's Best.. With more than 4,300 Clubs nationwide — and America's Best operating 630 locations across the U.S., including many in the L.A. area — the program's impact on the country's youth has profound and far-reaching potential.

Free vision testing is just one of an array of benefits associated with a Boys & Girls Club membership. While fees vary by Club, it is always affordable — even as low as $5 per year.

"Our main focus is youth development: academic achievement, good character and citizenship, and healthy lifestyles," Hernandez said.

Partnerships such as these help Clubs work toward their mission to enable all young people to reach their full potential.

If your child isn't yet involved with your local Boys & Girls Club, you can find a location nearest to you and apply for membership here.