FULLER PARK — Underserved children and their parents are seeing how a shuttered elementary school is still a benefit to the community.
Princeton Elementary School, 5125 S. Princeton Ave., closed in 2009, but two years later Chicago Public Schools rented the building to the Illinois College of Optometry to provide space to open the Illinois Eye Institute at Princeton Elementary School, CPS spokesman David Miranda said.
Since its January 2011 inception, the two-story clinic has seen a steady stream of students from across the city.
"Since we opened we have served about 15,000 youth. And while most do have some form of insurance [through the state], there are others who do not have insurance but still receive free care [including glasses] thanks to private grants," said Jennifer Sopko, a spokeswoman for the college.
While Sopko said while the clinic prefers parents to call and make an appointment, she said walk-ins and all insurances are accepted. The clinic is open from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Mondays and Fridays and from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays for youths up to age 19 and who are Chicago residents.
Most of the children seen at the clinic are black and Hispanic, said Dr. Melissa Suckow, an optometrist at the clinic and an assistant professor at the college.
Lorena Rodriguez, 34, who has a 4-year-old daughter, is one of those parents who does not have insurance.
"I am not working at this time and I can't afford to pay either. CPS told me about this place, and since my little girl needed an exam to start kindergarten I brought her here," said Rodriguez, who lives in Little Village. My daughter "likes to watch cartoons, but it's no fun doing that if you cannot see good."
After her exam was completed and she was fitted for eyewear, Rodriguez's daughter, Kenia, said, "I guess I like getting glasses. I never had any before."
Diana Velazquez, 25, was also at the clinic Tuesday with her son Diangelo Esquivel, 5, who needed glasses.
"I noticed he sits close when watching TV. That's why I brought him in to get checked out. Plus, I am not working," said Velazquez, of Portage Park.
When a child's vision is poor it hinders their reading ability, said Martie Susberry, a fourth-grade teacher at Bret Harte Elementary School in Hyde Park, who is also the school's vision coordinator.
"If they can't see they can't do their work. Having glasses opens up their world and allows them to see things more clearly like school work," Susberry said Tuesday. "Today I brought 45 students from Bret Harte to get an eye exam, and this is something I do every year."
Dr. Sandy Block, the director, and 14 other employees, including optometrists, students from the college, administrators and a security guard, make up the clinic's staff.
"It would be great to see more clinics open up because more are needed," Suckow said. "Unfortunately, we do not treat parents but when we get inquiries we refer parents to the Illinois College of Optometry, which is close by."
For now only glasses are available at the clinic, but Block said she would like to someday offer contact lenses and have extended hours.
"Seventy-four percent of children seen need new eyeglasses, and 80 percent of the children fall under the state health insurance," Block said. "CPS conducts vision screenings routinely on pre-kindergartners, second-grade students and eighth-grade students. Each year over 100,000 CPS children (either) fail vision screenings, have broken or lost glasses, or fail to complete a required exam for entry to school."
The clinic also treats children with special needs.
Sofelia Whitehead, 34, took her 3-year-old son, who she said suffers from a brain injury, to the clinic Tuesday to have his eyes checked out.
"I was trying to get him in this program for special needs kids at Beethoven School and they referred me here to get his eyes looked at," said Whitehead, of Calumet Heights. "This place is great for kids. The service was fast, friendly and the information provided was helpful. I am glad I came here."