The Naples Children & Education Foundation has added an eye exam to the back-to-school checklist
By Emily Wilson
Photography by Mila Bridger
ids go to school with backpacks full of textbooks, notebooks, and pencils, but many students return to the classroom without another essential aspect of academic success — annual vision care services.
To help meet that need, the Naples Children & Education Foundation (NCEF) is increasing its efforts to ensure school children in their area get the vision care they need. The foundation recently awarded the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine $1.1 million to take on a larger role in NCEF’s children’s vision initiative. The support deepens a vital partnership that has brought life-changing vision care to thousands of underprivileged, at-risk children in Collier County.
“The children’s vision initiative was established to create a system of care that allows our partners to work together and make sure children don’t fall through the cracks,” said Maria Jimenez-Lara, chief executive officer of NCEF. “The ‘secret sauce’ is having a vision navigator who works with the schools and parents, so all parties have an understanding of the child’s needs and the best way to go about fulfilling those needs.”
At the start of this school year, Bascom Palmer health care teams assumed management of the program and are now providing vision screening, exams, and tertiary care for children in Collier County Title I schools.
A positive impact on children
NCEF launched the vision initiative in 2012 to address significant disparities in vision care among the county’s children. Since then, the program has provided approximately 20,000 children with eye care, free glasses, and treatment, which have improved grades, behavior, and attendance.
Bascom Palmer began working with NCEF in 2017 after opening a state-of-the-art facility in Naples — its first on Florida’s west coast. Since then, Bascom Palmer has provided assistance for children needing additional services.
“One-third of the information coming into a child’s brain comes through their eyes,” said Eduardo C. Alfonso, M.D., director of Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, chair of the Department of Ophthalmology, and the Stanley J. Glaser Endowed Professor in Ophthalmology “It is very important that we intervene early in a child’s life and do vision screenings. If we do so, we can make a child’s life that much better. Bascom Palmer is proud to be providers of eye care for the children in Collier County.”
NCEF has supported children’s charities in Collier County for 20 years and reaches approximately 45,000 children though its services. The foundation raises funds primarily through its Naples Winter Wine Festival, an annual weekend event in January that features dinners created by top vintners and chefs. It’s the largest international charity wine auction in the country.
Looking for the best investment
“We view ourselves as investors and look to invest our grant dollars in organizations that provide positive outcomes for the children served,” Jimenez-Lara said. “With Bascom Palmer’s track record, in addition to being the No. 1 ophthalmology center in the U.S., it seemed like a wise investment.”
This year, NCEF reached a fundraising milestone of $200 million.
“Crossing the $200 million threshold leaves us in a state of grateful disbelief and enormous pride,” Jimenez-Lara said. “The generosity of our festival patrons over the past 20 years has been both humbling and awe-inspiring to us all.”
The children’s vision initiative and other supplemental programming that NCEF supports have significantly improved the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in Collier County.
“We want all children to succeed and be productive citizens who give back to their community,” Jimenez-Lara said.