As a teenager, Lauren Clem had the same dream as many of her peers: She wanted to drive. But her severely limited vision – due to a rare group of genetic disorders known as oculocutaneous albinism – made driving virtually impossible.
With help from the WVU Eye Institute’s Children’s Vision Rehabilitation Program (CVRP), Clem’s dream became a reality. The program provides vital resources — including medical care, optical devices, assistive technology, mentoring, educational support and more — that improve long-term quality of life for blind and visually impaired children.
CVRP has been made possible in part by a 2019 grant from The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation (TGKVF). The $103,050 grant bolsters program efforts in Boone, Clay, Kanawha, Lincoln, Putnam and Fayette counties and boosts the organization’s total CVRP donations to more than $1 million over the past 16 years.
“The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation is proud to support the WVU Eye Institute’s Children Vision Rehabilitation Program,” TGKVF Senior Program Officer Stephanie Hyre said. “As a community foundation, we value local programs like the CVRP that provide educational opportunities to marginalized youth, including those with visual impairment. Through our partnership with the WVU Eye Institute, TGKVF is honored to assist blind and low-vision students in developing the skills and capacities needed to graduate high school, achieve their post-secondary goals and live independently.”
CVRP Program Director Rebecca Coakley said the continued funding opens doors for students served in that area, offering technology and other resources that will ultimately lead to employability. She noted that the unemployment rate for blind or visually impaired adults is about 70%, but CVRP has reduced that rate among program participants.
“These kids are now able to see what their sighted peers do, just in a different way,” Coakley said.
CVRP serves about 1,000 school-aged children each year, including 120 treated at clinics held across the state. The program’s multidisciplinary team of professionals welcomes parents, teachers and others to clinics to craft a collaborative plan designed to ensure each child’s success into adulthood.
The remaining children are treated via follow-up visits, summer skills institutes, overnight camps, a mentoring program and other activities that offer unique opportunities children with visual impairments might not otherwise experience. For instance, Clem has been whitewater rafting, ziplining and skiing since getting involved with the program as a toddler.
“It’s a program that I don’t think a lot of people could go without,” said Clem, now a WVU freshman working toward a degree in occupational therapy. “I would never be at WVU if I didn’t have the resources that I did growing up.”
Clem’s visual impairment is due to reduced pigment in her eyes, which limits their ability to filter light. Her corrected vision is 20/120, meaning that she can see clearly at 20 feet what is visible to most people at 120 feet.
In addition to vision correction resources, CVRP shared useful strategies to help Clem navigate the world on her own, such as counting stairs to traverse campus or placing a finger along the top of her reusable water bottle to gauge when it’s full.
“The biggest thing CVRP has done for me is make me feel that I have someone I can call, text or email to figure out how to do things,” Clem said. “That’s the biggest thing, knowing someone is always going to be there.”
The CVRP team was there when Clem wanted to learn how to drive, too. She was fitted for bioptic driving glasses, which feature a telescopic lens on one eye, at age 14.
“I remember [Coakley] looking at me and saying, ‘This will take hard work, but you can do it,” said Clem, 18, who earned her license earlier this year. “It took four years, but my dream came true.”
To give to the WVU Eye Institute and its programs, visit https://give.wvu.edu/wvumedicine-eyeinstitute.