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Ala. nonprofit brings gift of sight to Hawaii kids

Youths from Maui, Oahu receive vision-assisting equipment free of charge from Sight Savers America

Karl Jason Calimag of Kahului sports his new pair of “design for vision telescope” glasses, which magnify objects up close and at a distance. Photos courtesy Sight Savers America

Ever since Karl Jason Calimag was born with cataracts on his eyes, his parents have tried all sorts of things to help improve his vision. They bought him glasses, but it didn’t help. They spoke to doctors, but the doctors said there was nothing they could do.

So when Calimag received a special pair of telescopic glasses Saturday that improved his vision at no cost, it was a welcome blessing for the 16-year-old Baldwin High School junior.

“It’s a big help,” his father, James Calimag, said Sunday. “How many years I’m searching for answers (so) we can have something to help him? It was answered.”

Karl Jason Calimag was one of seven kids from Maui and Oahu to receive vision-assisting equipment free of charge Saturday from Sight Savers America. The other six kids received donated ONYX electronic video magnifiers, a high-resolution camera attached to a high-definition flat-screen that allows the user to magnify images up to 131 times. Users can also change colors on the screen and adjust the contrast to better distinguish between items, such as a brown cup on a black countertop.

Sight Savers America, an Alabama-based nonprofit, has made it its mission to bring assistive technology to kids with low vision all over the country. The organization has given electronic video magnifiers to kids in 13 states, including, most recently, Hawaii. President Jeff Haddox said the goal is to give the devices to all 60 kids in Hawaii that Sight Savers has identified through the help of local eye doctors, teachers and social service agencies.

Michael Dean Maielua Jr. of Oahu gets a crash course in the electronic video magnifier, which can enlarge images up to 131 times and change colors and contrast on a screen to allow the viewer to see better.

“Typically a child who is legally blind will read a piece of paper with normal-size print with the paper right up at their nose,” Sight Savers President Jeff Haddox said. “You can imagine when a child reads like that, they can read for maybe five, 10 minutes, and their eyes start to feel strained, and they get a headache. With the EVMs . . . they can read as long as they want to. You can just imagine the difference that makes in your education being able to read for a long period of time.”

Haddox said a member of Sight Savers’ board happened to have a connection to Maui Jim Sunglasses, and the local eyewear company agreed to split the costs of the devices and host the clinic on Saturday.

Through the help of Teachers of the Visually Impaired, Imua Family Services and Dr. Kellen Kashiwa of the Retina Eye Institute of Hawaii, Sight Savers scoured the state for three months to find children who could benefit from the devices, which sell for $2,600 and aren’t usually covered by medical insurance. All of the children who were chosen have visual impairments that cannot be corrected with eyeglasses, contact lenses or medical or surgical treatment. Haddox said Sight Savers was able to get the equipment at a discounted price from the manufacturer, VFO.

James Calimag said his son is legally blind and usually can’t read signs from 20 feet away or farther. When his son uses a laptop, he usually has to put his face right up to the monitor.

“Now, he doesn’t have to do that,” James Calimag said.

Robert Crouch of Manoa, Oahu, grins while testing out an ONYX electronic video magnifier at the Maui Jim Sunglasses store in Lahaina on Saturday. Crouch was one of seven kids with visual impairments from Maui and Oahu to receive a video magnifier or other assistive equipment at no cost from Sight Savers America. The Alabama-based nonprofit aims to give the electronic video magnifiers to 60 children in Hawaii with severe visual impairments.

The special “design for vision telescope” that Karl Jason Calimag selected during the clinic on Saturday clips directly onto a pair of glasses, allowing the wearer “to magnify objects up close and at a distance,” Haddox explained. They cost $700.

James Calimag said his son loves to play basketball, but isn’t able to join the team because he can’t really see the ball. While the new glasses won’t equip him to play sports, they will make a lot of his school activities much easier, like catching instructions on the board or making morning announcements over the PA system.

“It helps me a lot because usually when I read, the paper is really close,” Karl Jason Calimag said. “I have to read slower so I can adjust for moving the paper, and also because . . . my left eye is weak. So I can actually read with both now.”

That will come in handy as the Baldwin High junior continues his education. He hopes to become a foreign language instructor or translator someday. He already speaks Tagalog and is picking up Swedish and Russian on his own time.

School also got a lot more manageable for Stevenson Middle School student Robert Crouch. He and his mom, Lisa Chun, flew from Oahu to Maui over the weekend to learn how to use the electronic video magnifier.

Crouch, who turns 14 today, is legally blind. He has optic nerve atrophy, which means the nerve is weak, and “everything he sees is delayed to the brain,” Chun said. Because his medical condition affects the back of his eye, glasses don’t help.

“It was really hard when he was growing up,” Chun said. “He’d fall a lot because he wouldn’t see something. He can’t play any sports with balls because he sees the ball too late. And his reading is a little slower, so I would say maybe in 4th grade everyone was advancing, and he wasn’t anymore.”

Crouch was able to use assistive devices through school, but he didn’t have a device that was his own. Now he can bring some of his work home and use the video magnifier. He also received a portable device that fits in his backpack. Both devices help magnify images, change colors and fonts, and can take a snapshot of a document to read aloud, which will help Crouch get through his homework much quicker.

“I appreciate so much their assistance and helping kids with visual disabilities,” Chun said. “It’s an awesome thing to see happening for these children.”

Haddox said his company will monitor and maintain the devices for the kids through age 19. He said they’re not just helpful for the students, but also for the parents who help their kids with homework.

“It is life-changing,” Haddox said. “It’s not only reading. It’s also writing, looking at maps, puzzles, putting on makeup, grooming their face. They can also point the camera outside and see things outdoors that they normally cannot see.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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