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Mobile vision clinic gives Utah kids the gift of sight

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SALT LAKE CITY — Bonifacio Cardenas no longer sits at the back of his third-grade classroom.

He's been moved to the front — not because he's been bad, but so he can see better.

"My glasses broke about a month ago," the 12-year-old said Wednesday. He said they fell off and got stepped on by one of his playmates. "They're in a bunch of pieces, and I can't wear them."

Bonifacio is one of nearly 240 inner-city students who will be given the gift of sight this week as the "Eyeleen," the Vision Van, makes a stop in Salt Lake City. It is one of 18 cities the van will visit across North America — it is heading to Portland, Maine, next — providing free glasses to children whose families may not be able to afford them on their own.

The endeavor is made possible by OneSight, a nonprofit arm of the world's largest eyewear company, Italy-based Luxottica, and its dozens of retail outlets, including many that are local, as well as employees who volunteer.

"For me, as a volunteer, it's life-changing," said Stephanie Vicars-Robinson, a LensCrafters employee in Provo who coordinates the event each year. "I can see the difference it makes."

Vicars-Robinson said kids are usually excited to get their first pair of glasses, not only because "glasses are cool now," but because they, too, know the difference good vision can make.

Following various vision tests for acuity, depth perception and color blindness, kids select frames from among several high-end brand names and are fitted for glasses just minutes later.

The van houses doctors' offices and eye-testing equipment, as well as the capacity to create up to 3,000 pairs of glasses in one stop. More complicated prescriptions are sent off-site to local laboratories, but kids still get their glasses relatively quickly.

School nurses screen children in advance of the van's visit. Without the opportunity, they could work with local vendors or clinics for low-cost options, but OneSight's vision van has the greatest reach.

"This is the fastest option for them, and it's our only free option," said Elizabeth Player, family support director for the Salt Lake City School District.

Player said good vision is imperative for classroom learning and helps kids' self-esteem and confidence.

"There's nothing that can make a bigger difference," she said. "When you see them see things for the first time, it's a transformation that is amazing to watch. It's like magic. It's amazing to be a part of it."

Vivian Gil, 7, glowed while she was being fitted with her first glasses — a bright red and pink pair. Her spectacles will help correct pretty severe astigmatism, and Vivian immediately recognized her new ability to see.

She smiled so big, little dimples appeared near the corners of her mouth.

"I can see, but it is not blurry anymore," Vivian said, adding that colors were suddenly more bright.

Vicars-Robinson, who placed the glasses on Vivian's face, said it will take the young girl a little while to get used to her new accessory. Astigmatism, she said, is a common condition that changes how a person sees things either far away or up close, usually resulting in blurry vision.

"That's a whole lot of astigmatism for never having worn glasses before," Vicars-Robinson said, regarding Vivian's strong eyeglass prescription. "This can change her life."

According to the American Optometric Association, 80 percent of what kids learn is visual, yet 1 in 4 students has an undiagnosed vision problem.

A large number of willing volunteers helps to make the Salt Lake City a successful one, and OneSight has returned for nearly 15 years. The global vision care nonprofit has helped 8.5 million people since 1988, including 1 million students in the United States.

Students eligible to receive services are determined in advance of the clinic by local school nurses and community partners, and walk-in appointments are not available.

This week's local clinic marks the launch of a new partnership between OneSight and Salt Lake City-based online retailer glasses.com.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards