The annual iCare Initiative University of Alberta was formed in 2010 as a volunteer group, but has been in existence since 2008 – previously operating under a different name. The initiative has three primary objectives: to educate school-aged children about vision problems, screen young children in an effort to prevent long-term vision issues and to fundraise.
Since 2008, U of A student volunteers have screened 1,000 children in grades 1 to 3 at 12 local schools. The volunteers usually visit one school each month between September and April each school year. The university students start off with a brief, fun PowerPoint presentation to teach kids about the signs of vision problems, such as blurry vision, needing to squint or sit near the front in order to see.
Then the children get screened at various stations by looking at an eye chart, and the visual acuity results for each eye are given to children immediately. Volunteers also check off a box on a form that is sent home to parents, noting whether the child has good vision or poor vision, and the suggestion is made to all parents to take their children for a professional eye exam. The form is sent home to parents, noting all children in Alberta are entitled to one free eye exam every year.
“We keep things very simple for the kids, talking to them about what their eyes are used for, what helps their eyes and what hurts their eyes,” says Ravin Bastiampillai, a third-year medical student and president of the iCare initiative. “Ultimately, our goal is not to prescribe anything or make a diagnosis; our goal is to identify children who have a vision problem using a very simple screening tool, and to let parents know that eye exams are free for anyone under the age of 18 in Alberta.”
Tristan Kully, said he learned “a whole bunch” of information when the U of A students came to his school – St. Alphonsus Catholic Elementary/Junior High School – on Tuesday afternoon. He learned dust is bad for your eyes and carrots and nuts can help your eyes and are good for your body too. He also learned about parts of the eye, such as the pupil, and thought the free eye exams were a good idea.
“I think it’s going to be a very good idea because it might help my eyes… I got these glasses because my eyes can’t really see well that much.”
The students usually screen between 30 and 50 kids at each school. Of those, there are usually up to five children at each school who are noted as having high-risk vision problems, meaning they need to wear glasses or may have a more serious problem such as a “lazy eye” that can be corrected if caught at an early age, says Bastiampillai.
Bastiampillai decided to start this volunteer initiative after he travelled to India in 2006 with a U.S.-based volunteer organization called Unite for Sight, where he was part of a group that conducted visual acuity exams for more than 1,000 locals in the neighbouring villages around Chennai, India. He thought there was a need for a similar effort in Edmonton’s inner city to help improve vision for school-aged children.
“That trip spurred an interest in vision care for me and taught me that interventions are important, not only in places abroad, but also in places right here at home.”
This year, iCare plans to compile some research statistics on their initiative by following up with parents a few weeks after the screening to see how many parents took their children to an optometrist’s office. The overall goal is to gather data and present their findings to Alberta school boards.
Eric Martin, a nursing student who is the public relations representative and chair of the iCare initiative, said he is pleased at the great responses they receive from every school they are involved with. He spearheads the school screenings and is the main liaison with the school board.
“This is a unique program in Edmonton and we are encouraged by both the active roles that principals and vice-principals have in regards to the event and the co-operation from the teachers, students and families which all contribute to more than 80 per cent of kids taking part.”
Joan Carr, Superintendent of Edmonton Catholic Schools, added: “The Edmonton Catholic School District values the program offered by the U of A medical, arts and education students. The proactive eye-health screening and education mirror our overall philosophy of giving students the supports they need to succeed and reach their full potential.”
University of Alberta