Group promotes eye care at D.C. public schools

A group of fifteen GW student volunteers has been working with D.C. public schools to provide vision screenings and educational sessions for students in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The volunteers are members of the GW chapter of Unite for Sight, a worldwide nonprofit organization that seeks to improve eye health and eliminate preventable blindness. The organization began in 2000 as a Yale University sophomore’s community service project and has rapidly evolved. Unite for Sight now encompasses a coalition of more than 3,000 volunteers in 85 separate chapters that serve medically impoverished communities around the globe.

GW’s chapter of Unite for Sight was founded in December 2003 by a group of students from different schools and majors who shared common interests in medicine and service. The group has since worked on establishing relationships with local elementary schools that enable volunteers to come into classrooms and work with students one on one. This semester, GW Unite for Sight has been working with the second and sixth grades at Tubman Elementary School in Columbia Heights.

The Unite for Sight volunteers first make an educational visit to the public school classrooms to teach students the importance of eye care. Students are given an interactive presentation on simple eye functions and ways to take care of their eyes.

“It’s a very basic understanding of why it’s important to keep your eyes healthy,” said senior Zhara Malik, vice president of GW Unite for Sight. Malik said the presentations include the use of activities such as optical illusions, crossword puzzles, and diagrams that engage the students while simultaneously educating them.

Sophomore Sarah Brown, the club’s vice president of outreach, said it is “rewarding to watch the children truly grasping the concepts we were teaching them and having fun at the same time.”

“While we can help diagnose and treat existing conditions, it is very important to educate members of our community to show them how to prevent problems with their eyes from developing in the first place,” said Brown, who also works in The Hatchet’s production department.

Two weeks later, Unite for Sight makes a follow-up visit to the school to administer a vision screening of the students who received the presentation. The volunteers record the results and send a letter home to the students’ parents to inform them of how their child performed regardless of whether the child did well. The letters stress the importance of regular eye exams and include a list of free clinics where parents can take their children for a professional evaluation.

“It’s a first step for (the parents). If they hear from us, maybe it’s an encouragement for them to go schedule an eye exam or get the students’ glasses fixed,” said Malik, who noted her disappointment with the high rate of students who do not wear their glasses or report that their glasses are broken.

Junior Farah Khan, president of the GW Unite for Sight chapter, said the group has also been active in educating the general community, holding vision screenings at Miriam’s Kitchen on the second Monday of each month.

The students at Tubman Elementary said they appreciated the work of the Unite for Sight volunteers.

“We didn’t know anything about our eyes before they came,” said George, a sixth-grader at Tubman.

Thomas, another sixth-grader, agreed. “We feel happy that they came because we’re getting to learn more about taking care of our eyes,” he said.

Hannah Mrochek, the school nurse at Tubman, said the Unite for Sight volunteers have been invaluable in allowing her to keep pace with her annual vision screenings. “They’ve been very helpful to me. They’ve done a great job,” Mrochek said.

Mrochek also reported that the Tubman students have not only benefited from their lessons on eye care, but also from their social interaction with the GW volunteers.

“These students need role models; the D.C. public schools don’t provide them with anyone to look up to,” Mrochek said. “It’s inspiring for them to see these college students who are out there making something of their lives. It really motivates them.”

-Michael Barnett contributed to this report.

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