United Way of Central Iowa this morning launched a community program that will provide free glasses to Des Moines elementary students, bringing a successful national model to Central Iowa and eventually the entire state.

Twenty students at Lovejoy Elementary this morning received glasses, the first of approximately 160 students at five Des Moines elementaries in low-income neighborhoods who will be provided glasses through Vision to Learn.

"Providing kids with glasses changes their lives forever," said Austin Beutner, founder and chairman of Vision to Learn, which is based in Los Angeles. "They become more confident, participate more in the classroom, and do better in reading, math and all of their schoolwork."

United Way of Central Iowa helped bring the pilot project to Des Moines, and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines provided funding. The Vision to Learn Iowa mobile clinic traveled to Central Iowa schools to give vision exams and glasses to students. Prevent Blindness Iowa provided free vision screenings in advance of the eye exams.

"Thanks to this partnership with Vision to Learn, United Way, Prevent Blindness Iowa and the Community Foundation, we are able to provide one more vital tool that supports our students, enhances their education and puts them on a clearer path to graduate and succeed," said Thomas Ahart, superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools.

This spring, around 2,000 students at Lovejoy, Capitol View, King, Moulton and Monroe elementary schools received vision screenings by a school nurse or trained staff and volunteers with Prevent Blindness Iowa. Students who did not pass an initial screening were referred to the Vision to Learn mobile vision clinic to receive a modified vision exam by a licensed optometrist. Children prescribed glasses chose a style and frame from a wide selection offered by the mobile clinic. The glasses are now being dispensed to each child, free of charge.

During the pilot, more than 200 children received exams from the mobile vision clinic, and of those, about 160 will receive two pairs of glasses — one to keep at school and one to keep at home — which will be delivered to the kids at school.

"This innovative program is another way we are mobilizing our community under Read to Succeed to help all children read proficiently by the end of third grade," said Elisabeth Buck, president of United Way of Central Iowa. "This program especially gives students a vital tool they need to learn, and ultimately to graduate from high school."

United Way is working with Vision to Learn to secure funding and expand the program over the next two years, targeting schools in Central Iowa with more than 50 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunch. Vision to Learn, which started in Dubuque in January 2017, plans to continue to expand to serve more kids throughout the state.