Imagine you’re a young boy or girl in the outfield and a ball’s sailing your way. You prepare yourself for the catch, moving slightly left and then right. The game’s outcome depends on your successfully pulling in the ball. Then, it drops just a few feet in front of you. But the failed attempt occurs not because you were unprepared but because you couldn’t see the ball clearly.

That’s what many youth experience while participating in sports or while attempting to see the blackboard or read when in the classroom at school.

But not anymore — at least for one lucky group of scholar-athletes who are members of the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Southeast who recently received free eye care including comprehensive eye examinations and eyewear that shields them from the sun when out on the baseball field.

Through a unique partnership that included VSP Global, Nike Vision, National’s eye specialist, Dr. Keith Smithson and Nationals 3B Anthony Rendon, a board member of the Academy, 150 children from the team’s Youth Baseball Academy can see the world and the baseball field better.

Photo by Shevry Lassiter

Yodit Berhane, an optical technician with Northern Virginia Doctors of Optometry, examines Caleb Smith, 9, during the VSP Global Eyes of Hope mobile eye-care clinic held at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in southeast D.C. on Aug. 4.

Smithson, pediatric and sports vision specialist, Northern Virginia Doctors of Optometry, has been the Nationals’ team optometrist since their first day in the District. He and several of his colleagues who normally work in offices located in Reston, Falls Church, Alexandria and Arlington, donated their services, providing no-cost eye exams and prescription glasses.

He described the event as “fantastic.”

“There’s no better feeling than knowing you’ve helped a child and after seeing the impact that this first time effort has had on children from the Academy, we’ve already started to discuss ways to hold similar programs again,” Smithson said. “Our goal was to get the word out about the importance of getting your eyes checked regularly, pointing out the differences between vision screening and a comprehensive eye exam and educating youth on the benefits of protecting their eyes from ultra violet rays by using sunglasses.”

Smithson shared the story of one girl who had never received a vision exam.

“She, like many of the children, had never had an eye exam,” he said. “Many of the kids were squinting so they could see. We soon determined that she had significant visual impairment. She’s a talented athlete and plays baseball and basketball and was excited to know that in just a few days she’d have glasses for school and sports glasses.”

“But when she told me that her dream was not to one day join the Mystics but rather to become a lawyer, I knew that we had made a difference in her life, for her community and perhaps even the world.”

All of the children received Nike sunglasses thanks to Dan Leonardi, VP of Sport Brands Division for Marchon, Inc. who donated the protective eyewear from his company’s Nike Vision unit.

“Dr. Smithson was really the driving force behind this initiative and we’re proud to be part of it,” he said. “We wanted to help because of the children and we’re committed to stepping up our efforts so that we can collectively help more youth get sports performance eyewear and vision care exams.”

“We just finished participating in a similar program in Harlem for an AAU basketball program. So many youth are not properly diagnosed for vision or eye health. Amazingly, at the AAU program, we tested 30 kids — 20 needed and received prescription glasses.”

Perhaps the real lynchpin in the partnership came from VSP Global, the world’s largest insurance company that targets communities in need with their Eyes of Hope mobile eye care clinics.

The initiative provides eye care, eyewear, education and disaster relief to places where they’re needed most. To date, through Eyes of Hope, VSP Global has invested more than $175 million in no-cost eye care and eyewear for one million people in need.

VSP Global mobile clinic operations manager Janet Vorwerck also attended the Academy’s daylong program and said the best part was helping 90 children receive glasses.

“We could have helped even more children if we had been able to reach more parents so they could fill out the pretty extensive paperwork that’s required,” she said. “But we’re still quite happy with our efforts. VSP has driven over 470, 000 miles to deliver free eye care. One million people have received help so they can see better and we’ve invested $175 million in free eye care and eyewear.

“You help one child at a time see the world better — and it really makes a difference in their lives,” she added.

Katina Lee, senior director of operations for the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, agreed.

“This all began several months ago with meetings and planning,” Lee said. “Now that we’ve seen what we can do, we’re going to expand the program next year and connect it to a larger health fair that will include dental care and diabetes screening. We’re part of this community and because of the resources at our disposal, we believe we can meet some of the needs of those who live in the Greater Washington Area. We’re here to stay and we’re help to make their lives better.”

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