Raine Andrews remembers the day she put on her first pair of glasses.
“I was outside, and I was like, ‘Whoa, trees have individual leaves?!'”
As an optometrist assistant with the Mobile Vision Care Clinic (MVCC), Andrews and her colleagues set up vision clinics in Manitoba schools. Working in predominantly underserved neighbourhoods, the staff assess children’s sight and test for colour blindness. Roughly 70 per cent of those they test have never had an eye exam before.
When Andrews was young, she was part of that 70 per cent.
“I know from personal experience what it’s like to go without, and to experience the world and education without being able to see,” she said. “When I was a little girl, my parents were very young… they know that they could not afford the 600 dollars for glasses, which is also very true for many other parents in the communities that we test in.”
MVCC was founded by Sean Sylvestre after a friend working in a Winnipeg school division approached him about the need for vision tests in schools. The friend told Sylvestre, a licensed optician, that school principals were taking students two at a time the optometrist. Sylvestre met with the friend on a Tuesday, and by the next Monday, he’d set up his first mobile clinic.
“Students, especially in vulnerable and marginalized areas, struggle with access,” Sylvestre said, “so the best way to deal with that was to bring a clinic exactly where they are.”
The MVCC is heading into its sixth year, but it’s only in the past week the company has been able to travel outside Winnipeg. The overwhelming demand within the city limits has kept the team of six running. Last week, they made their first out of town trip to Thompson, MB. Sixty per cent of the children they tested over three days needed eyewear, well over the amount they encounter in Winnipeg. Today’s trip to Selkirk, just 40 km from Winnipeg, is only their second venture outside the Perimeter.
“This service is so needed,” said Andrews. “They put them on, and they’re like, ‘Wow!’ because this is a whole new world.”
MVCC is not a charity or nonprofit, but offer childrens’ glasses at at 65 per cent discount. They partner with parents’ work insurance and a vision foundation to cover the remaining cost, and if a family cannot afford that, they donate them. The company employs one optometrist, who does not make money off each pair sold, as many private practice optometrists do.
“We’re back in a lot of the schools every year, so we get to kind of reconnect with a lot of these students, and they get to tell us these stories about how it’s been since they’ve gotten their glasses,” said Sylvestre. “I just love it.”
Sylvestre also hears from teachers who tell of their students’ improvement in the classroom.
“We’re talking to schools and they’re telling us behavioural issues are going down, and that literacy rates are going up,” he said. “Students that are getting glasses are seeing almost a grade level and a half increase.”
Sylvestre hopes to expand his team in the near future to serve more parts of the province, including fly-in communities and First Nations. His hopes his business can help kids toward a better education, and a brighter future.
“There’s something magic about working with kids and seeing how this impacts their lives,” he said.
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