A Charity Driven By A Simple Rule: If Children Can’t See, They Can’t Learn

Abby Ayoub is driven by a simple realization – if children can’t see, they can’t learn.

Ayoub, CEO of the Clifton, NJ-based Optical Academy, set out to correct that in the most direct way she could, and did so among those who needed it the most – children from economically-distressed families, many of whom are homeless and most of whom are recent immigrants to the United States.

Optical Academy’s work was inspired by a 15-year-girl named Kelly who visited Ayoub after failing vision screenings. Ayoub and her team found a tumor coiled around her brain. Kelly was rushed to the hospital and lived.

It took six years, however, before Optical Academy could open its non-profit arm, See A Beautiful Day Every Day. Working in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, the charity started by helping children with special needs but expanded to serve all children and now also serves their parents. See A Beautiful Day Every Day operates on proceeds from Optical Academy, and in six years has donated $3 million in services and products to local communities. Between 2011 and 2015 (data are not available for 2016 yet) the group served 12,000 patients. In all, Ayoub said that for every 50 paying customers she has in her office, See A Beautiful Day Every Day is able to serve 10 children.

“What you see out in the community you will never see in a private bricks-and-mortar office,” said Ayoub, who earlier this year was honored as a top female CEO by my SmartCEO.

You can spend millions on screenings, but if they can’t afford to get glasses then it’s like telling a child they are hungry but you can’t eat. This program allows that child to get an eye exam and eyewear and does so for less than the cost of a screening.

See A Beautiful Day Every Day goes into schools and performs on-site eye exams and on-site eyewear production. Students who need them also receive a second pair of glasses which are kept at school in case their primary pair breaks or is forgotten. As part of the program, children are also invited to help make their own glasses – not only does that provide a sense of ownership but it exposes them to a possible future career track.

The program, Ayoub says, is by far more effective than simple at-school screenings.

“More than 70% of kids who fail a screening never get seen,” she said. “You can spend millions on screenings, but if they can’t afford to get glasses then it’s like telling a child they are hungry but you can’t eat. This program allows that child to get an eye exam and eyewear and does so for less than the cost of a screening.”

Many of the charity’s patients are recent overseas arrivals – they come from the Middle East, Africa, and Central America. Many are undocumented, don’t speak English, and have major health issues. Ayoub caters to unmet needs by inviting families to the events, connecting patients and families to community resources like the Salvation Army, using digital eye exams that don’t require the patient to know English, and created a welcoming environment where friends could be with friends – no taking children into an idling bus full of scary large beeping machines.

“There is a real crisis with undocumented children who have no health care and no source of anything other than what they find in school,” she said.

Ayoub would like her charity to change the way the eye care industry looks at charity work as a whole.

“I would definitely love to change the model,” she said. ‘A lot of non-profits in our industry go overseas. No one really understand the deep needs in our own community. It is truly heartbreaking.”

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