Elyse Yooley remembers what it felt like to wear her first pair of glasses.
“It was like, ‘Whoa, there are actually leaves on those trees,’” she said.
This fall, Yooley will enter her second year of the Opticianry Associate Degree program at Durham Technical Community College.
As a second-year opticianry student, Yooley will join her classmates in participating in Project SIGHT. Project SIGHT is a partnership Durham Tech has with the East Durham Children’s Initiative, or EDCI, and Durham Public Schools to provide children of low-income backgrounds with free eyeglasses.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the outcome of what I will be doing and seeing the kids’ faces when they put on the glasses,” Yooley said. “I want to see the kids’ faces when they see the leaves on the trees.”
The students at Durham Tech select, fit, measure, manufacture, and dispense the eyewear based off prescriptions submitted by area optometry doctors.
“It is gratifying to think we are going to do something that is going to matter a lot in this kid’s life,” said Gerri Clark, a 2018 Durham Tech opticianry graduate. “One of the best things is putting a pair of glasses on a kid, especially when they can’t see.”
The young clients sometimes come to the Durham Tech optical shop for their fittings.
Tracy Bennett, the Director of and Instructor in the Opticianry program, enjoys observing the moment the kids receive their new glasses.
“You will see them look at their parents and see their parents for the first time,” she said. “It’s really heartwarming. It’s those types of things that keep this going. It keeps us wanting to do it.”
Project SIGHT was piloted during the 2017-18 academic year with the initial goal of providing 100 free pairs. That goal was exceeded by 60 pairs.
A full family was among the recipients.
“One of the kids was -19. A -19 prescription is extremely high,” Bennett said. “For that family to afford a new pair of glasses all in the same year is impossible. … You are talking about a $2,000 investment.
We were over the moon that we were able to get them all fitted for glasses.”
Being a former opticianry student, opticianry instructor Lance Reese understands how this type of community outreach can affect the Durham Tech student.
“We teach our students to go out and work in a retail setting,” he said. “This part touches a section of the population that doesn’t necessarily come up to the retail stores or can afford glasses and teaches our students … to just take care of all people who need glasses.
It gets us out of the building and into the community, and anytime, you can get into the community to help people is a good thing.”
Graduates have also returned to assist with the project.
“I think students leave here with a new appreciation for community service and what they can give back through their profession,” Bennett said.
Project SIGHT is primarily funded by the Durham Tech Foundation and private donations.
Local optometry doctors conduct free comprehensive eye exams, while businesses donate frames and lens.
“We try to provide the kids with some good styles, too,” Bennett said. “We are trying to branch out and work with different vendors to get more name-brand styles.”
The program chiefly has served elementary school students but has reached students as old as 14.
Bennett would like the program to grow and reach any student in the Durham Public Schools system that’s in need. She also would like to educate the public about the importance of eye health and comprehensive health exams.
“We want this to be a sustainable thing,” she said. “We want this to be continuous and to expand it. We see so much value in it.”
The Opticianry program also provides free eyeglasses to other organizations such as Samaritan Health Center and Durham Rescue Mission.
“It is gratifying to know that the work we were doing had real-life consequences,” said John, a 2018 Durham Tech opticianry graduate.
Durham Tech offers the only opticianry degree program in North Carolina.