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Daily Inspiration: Meet Kate McKearn

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kate McKearn. Them and their team share their story with us below:

Eye Thrive was founded in 2004 as Eye Care Charity of Mid-America. Under that umbrella, the organization offered a wide range of vision services to people of all ages. In 2013, we acquired our first Mobile Vision Clinic, and that’s when everything changed. Our Mobile Vision Clinic (MVC) and wraparound services remove the barriers of access and expense that prevent low-income children from receiving essential vision services. The MVC is a fully equipped optometry center on wheels with two exam lanes that visits schools and child-centered organizations at no cost to provide eye exams and glasses (most made and dispensed on-site from our on-board finishing lab). Our wraparound services include vision screenings, referrals for follow up care, and no-questions-asked replacements for any child with a current Eye Thrive prescription.

Since 2013, Eye Thrive has grown and innovated to become the leading provider of essential vision services for low-income kids in the region, and that is thanks in large part to Executive Director Kate McKearn. As a former public school teacher among the highest need districts in Missouri and Illinois, Kate has seen firsthand how lack of access to the essentials impacts children in the classroom and in the trajectory of their lives. Kate has fostered an organizational culture that meets children where they are, ensures every child is met with positivity and a first-class experience, and strives to continually improve programming to provide more children with exceptional care.

Under Kate’s leadership, Eye Thrive prioritizes underrepresented, high need communities to ensure children have the glasses they need to thrive. Under our typical scheduling model, 100% of the children we serve live in poverty as defined by enrollment in the federally subsidized school lunch program and/or enrollment in Medicaid. In the face of the pandemic, we know “poverty-impacted communities are at a much higher risk of being diagnosed with COVID-19, having more detrimental health outcomes, and experiencing…long-lasting financial consequences. African Americans are at greater risk because they are more likely to be low income” (Grinstein-Weiss and Gupta, 2020). During the 2021-2022 school year, 60% of parents identified their children as African American; 77.75% as non-Caucasian.

Vision impairment is one of the most common disablingconditions among children in the United States, affecting 25% of students (Vision Impact Institute, 2012). COVID-19 has worsened this situation, with early studies finding that by increasing screen-time to between 8-12 hours per day,school shutdowns and other changes are creating a second pandemic where up to 39% of kids may now need glasses (Bakhir, 2020).

Early detection can prevent more than 80% of all vision impairment, but for the low-income children we serve, the detection of vision issues are limited by an inability to access services. In fact, 90% of low-income children who need glasses don’t have them. The problem is two to three times worse for Black and Hispanic youth (Versant, 2019), the majority of our kids.

Vision problems often make children appear to havebehavioral disorders or learning disabilities when a lack of sight is the true root issue. Among children who are“reading disabled,” as many as 80% show a deficiency in one or more basic vision skills (Vision Impact Institute) and up to 20% of children deemed generally “learning disabled” also likely have vision problems (American Optometric Association). Labels like these contribute to the dramatically higher rates of school discipline, especially for children of color, which puts a child at risk for interaction with the juvenile justice system.

Eye Thrive seeks to level the playing field between our kids and their more affluent peers by eliminating barriers to access. We maintain partnerships with dozens of school districts and community centers throughout the region, from Union to Collinsville, and North St. Louis to Jefferson County. To date, Eye Thrive has provided more than 23,000 vision screenings, 23,000 eye exams, and nearly 27,000 pairs of prescription glasses to children throughout the St. Louis region.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
We have seen a lot of change, and a number of challenges. From our Mobile Vision Clinic being totaled on the way to a visit to a global pandemic, circumstances outside our control have required us to swiftly and efficiently pivot our service model with minimal disruption to getting our kids the eye exams and glasses they need. At the start of the pandemic, we also realized that the landscape of need would drastically change, requiring us to adjust our accessibility and eligibility in addition to drastic changes in the delivery of our services. With each challenge, Kate has led our team through making the necessary modifications to continue providing our services and reaching the kids that need us the most. Our team is adept at adjusting, shifting, in order to keep our kids as our top priority.

At the start of the pandemic, KMOV4 News applauded Eye Thrive for swiftly adapting to continue to
provide services through our expanded replacement program. This program provided free replacement glasses to any child in our community with a current prescription, regardless of the provider.

While many similar organizations shut down and/or furloughed staff, we never stopped working for our kids. When it came time to address returning our Mobile Vision Clinic to the community in the summer of 2020, we literally went back to the drawing board and completely reworked our visit procedures in order to prioritize the health and safety of our kids and our staff. As soon as our team had the safety protocols in place to prioritize the health and safety of our kids and our staff, we were back out in the community to provide essential basic needs services during a critical time. It took more resources, more staff, and more time, but we did it.

With a community need that continues to grow, we’ve also had to prioritize growing our capacity in a sustainable way, and fundraising for the increased cost of providing services to more of our kids. A professionally conducted strategic plan, completed in early 2021 and in its first year of execution, was key to setting our organization up for continued success as we still face a number of unknowns moving forward.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
Kate has dedicated her career to empowering children in our most underserved communities; children that, without interventions, are unable to reach their full potential due to the circumstance of their zip code. Kate’s greatest professional achievement has been in response to the critical need that exists among our kids for essential services, taking Eye Thrive to the next level of organizational sustainability and providing kids with the tools they need to thrive.

Ultimately, she is dedicated to ensuring all children, regardless of race, gender, culture or need, have equal opportunities for success, and Eye Thrive has become synonomous with this through her leadership. These days, instead of leading and managing students, she leads and manages her team.

One strength that sets Kate apart, which she has certainly flexed in her tenure at Eye Thrive is resiliency. This resiliency is a direct reflection of her personal responsibility and commitment to giving kids in underserved communities the same opportunity to succeed as their more affluent peers. She will always put in the work, put myself out there, and think creatively in order to do what is best for our kids. Our team is equally tenacious, and widely respected.

Where do you see things going in the next 5-10 years?
Unfortunately, Eye Thrive does not see the need for essential health and other services to do anything but rise over the coming years. While we will hopefully emerge from an active pandemic, its ramifications are just coming to the surface and with a guarded economic forecast, we anticipate increased needs.

We do hope that as a result of this difficult time, we will see an increased number of partnerships among like-minded organizations among the non-profit and education industry. It’s something that Eye Thrive is deeply committed to – we simply could not continue to succeed without our incredible partnerships with schools, community centers and child-serving organizations. Our team is deeply hopeful that more people in need will receive services they need because of an increasing number of partnerships.

Pricing:

  • N/A – Our services are free of charge.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Headshot: Fresh Art Photography

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