OK, confession time. I felt scared as I prepared to address the Portland Regional Chamber for the first time at last month’s “Eggs & Issues” program.
This wasn’t stage fright. I’ve done plenty of public speaking. But I’d never used my position as a school leader to ask for money for a worthy cause – and that’s what I was about to do.
A few days earlier, I learned about an emergency facing many students in our district. They needed eyeglasses, and there was no longer an optometry practice in the city that dispensed glasses to children insured by MaineCare.
School nurses discovered the problem when students returned to school without the eyeglasses that they needed to do their schoolwork. Amanda Rowe, the district’s school nurse coordinator, made many calls to local optometrists and discovered that families would have to drive to Biddeford or even farther to obtain eyeglasses through MaineCare. The optometrists explained that they could not afford to fill MaineCare prescriptions at the state reimbursement rate of $8 per pair of eyeglasses, first set in the 1980s.
Amanda followed up with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and learned that they had just raised the reimbursement rate to $14.40. But even with the increase, Maine’s reimbursement rate for eyeglasses is less than half that of many other states.
DHHS is working with our district to craft a long-term solution. But hundreds of our students cannot afford to wait. If they cannot see the white board or the page in front of them, they are going to fall far behind in their academic work.
So, I decided to do something that felt very uncomfortable. I asked the business leaders at “Eggs & Issues” if they would help by donating to a Portland Public Schools fund to subsidize eyeglasses for needy children.
They responded with incredible generosity. Godfrey Wood, the chamber’s chief executive officer, pledged $1,000 on the spot. Our school district announced the creation of the fund to the media, and more donations poured in.
To date, we’ve received about $11,000 in donations, in amounts from $20 to $2,500. We have set a goal of $12,000. This is far less than we originally thought we would need, because optometrists and eyeglass providers have stepped forward with reduced pricing. One of the most touching gifts came from the parents of an elementary school student. Their son has worn eyeglasses since he was 18 months old and they made a donation in his name. As they wrote, “Children should not be deprived vision because of the cost.”
Local eye doctors, eye-care businesses and the president of the Maine Optometric Association offered help in devising a short-term solution. The Portland Lions Club and Kiwanis also offered their assistance.
We’ve worked out a plan with two Portland optometry practices, Casco Bay Eye Care and Eyes on Rosemont, to provide eye exams and eyeglasses for all Portland students who cannot obtain them readily through MaineCare, and for those who have no insurance. We welcome additional contributions. Donations may be sent to: Portland Public Schools, Eyeglasses for Students, 196 Allen Ave., Portland, ME 04103.
This experience underscores how closely intertwined our schools are with the larger community. Nurses in the Portland Public Schools identified a problem that has repercussions far beyond our district. Many children in the greater Portland area who have MaineCare insurance cannot readily obtain eyeglasses. We’ve helped bring the problem to the attention of state officials, and we will continue to work together to devise a long-term solution.
I felt uncomfortable asking for donations, but I’m glad that I did. People responded readily when they knew how their actions could make a real difference for children. That spirit of generosity and willingness to help is one reason why I love Portland.