SALT LAKE CITY — In a darkened section of a multipurpose room at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, Dr. Nathan Wilhelm put 7-year-old Stephanie Rodriguez through the paces of a vision exam Friday morning.
"Which is better, one or two?" he said, flipping lenses on a phoropter, a medical device used to determine prescriptions needed to correct visual impairments.
"Can you see these letters? What are they?" he said, directing Stephanie's attention to a video screen.
The pink-clad elementary schooler dutifully complied until she couldn't.
"They're too small!" she blurted out.
Finally, after a more involved examination, Wilhelm broke the news: "I think you need glasses."
She was hardly alone. Some 75 Salt Lake City School District students received free eye exams and selected frames Friday during a SightFest event. Most of the students had been identified by nurses at their neighborhood schools as likely candidates for vision correction.
The handful of optometrists who volunteered their time to perform exams kept things light so most student who were told they needed glasses took the news in stride.
Besides, they had their choice of hundreds of popular eyeglass frames. Once the lenses are prepared, the finished glasses will be delivered to the students' schools — all free of charge thanks to the efforts of volunteers and corporate supporters of the nonprofit organization Friends for Sight.
Some of the children required glasses to simply correct nearsightedness, but the screenings occasionally detect far more serious issues, some that even can result in blindness if not properly treated, said Kate Edwards, executive director of Friends for Sight.
"Close to 100 percent" of the students examined on Friday needed glasses, she said.
"Certainly a high percentage need glasses and some high prescriptions, too. Some of these kids really need our help," Edwards said.
According to the organization's website, SightFest events assist children whose families cannot afford vision care and do not qualify for other programs like Medicaid.
Some 70 volunteers turned out for the Friday's event, some health care professionals, others who chaperoned students to various stations or staffed information tables.
"Many of these kids, it's their first eye exam so it's important for them to not only get an eye exam but to also have to be a really good experience," she said,
Dr. Jarrod Davies, who has a private practice in South Jordan, said he volunteers one day each month offering free vision exams.
Davies, who served a Spanish-speaking church mission in Canada, said volunteering with Friends For Sight gives him an opportunity to serve the community and put his Spanish language skills to use. He also has an undergraduate degree in Spanish language.
"I don't think I've had a single kid that hasn't needed glasses and for about 80 percent of them, it's their first pair," Davies said.
The needs are great and it is rewarding to help children receive care that will enhance their learning, he said.
"When you're in your practice, you see people that can come in and pay for an exam or they have insurance. You don't see these kids so it is a little bit humbling to know they're out there," Davies said.