Voices from the Field: Interview with Tami Garcia

Children’s Vision Health

Tami Garcia

Tami Garcia has been with Prevent Blindness Wisconsin for more than 20 years and has more than 32 years of experience in the vision and healthcare field. Through her roles as Program Director, President, and Chief Executive Officer at Prevent Blindness Wisconsin, Ms. Garcia has high-level oversight and leadership experience coordinating, managing, and developing vision health programs spanning the state of Wisconsin.

How did you begin your career in early childhood?

Twenty-five years ago, my three-year-old son AJ had a vision screening at his childcare center, and he did not pass. I took him in for his eye exam and he was diagnosed with amblyopia (lazy eye) in his right eye. The pediatric ophthalmologist told me that he believed that AJ was not seeing out of his right eye from birth. I was shocked that we had no idea, and so grateful to the wonderful group of volunteer vision screeners who came to his childcare center and thankful that Prevent Blindness Wisconsin existed. I became a volunteer vision screener with the same group that screened AJ and loved it. After a few years of volunteering, I was fortunate enough to become a staff member and 21 years later, I am still loving the work that we do and cannot imagine doing anything else. I have been very blessed over the years to work with a team so dedicated to our mission.

What efforts have you been involved in to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services?

Prevent Blindness Wisconsin (PBW) does an excellent job of collaborating with volunteers and partners to support vision screening for all ages, but we have a particular focus on the 3–5-year-olds. We train and certify thousands of school nurses, public health nurses, Head Start personnel, university students, high school students, and volunteers in children’s vision screening.

We created a program, “Your Amazing Eyes,” to promote early literacy while learning about vision. It is a preschool reading program that delivers a story time and vision screening as an all-in-one event for children. This program is built upon six skills for early literacy and engages children in learning about the sense of sight, the eyes and how they work, wearing glasses, and other treatments. The program includes reading books and a variety of games and activities centered around vision health. The story time activities have been updated to be more inclusive of the digital world and now encourage safe screen-use habits such as playing outside every day and limiting screen use.

We also developed “The Vision and Eye Health Curriculum” that was designed for teachers to implement with children before vision screenings take place. Lesson plans in the curriculum focus on discussing vision health surrounding children’s vision screenings to teach self-advocacy for vision health among children and to share preventative vision care education to children and their teachers.

In addition, PBW created a video, “Vision Milestones.” The video is designed for partners, as well as parents and caregivers that have or work with newborns. This interactive educational video describes key developmental visual milestones a baby should reach during their first year of life. Snapshots of vision milestones that should be observed, as well as activities to assist the child with meeting visual milestones, are shared in an easy to digest manner through 2-3 months increments. Additionally, Vision Milestones educates partners and families on vision health, recommended steps to take if a child is not meeting their visual milestones, and community resources for vision care based on coverage options.

PBW has also started partnerships with Home Visitor networks throughout Wisconsin. We have implemented our Vision Milestones workshop for Home Visitors, educating partners on the key development visual milestones and signs of a possible vision problem in children. The main goal behind Home Visitor education and training is so the visitors can share the information and educate parents and caregivers of the families they serve.

Another focus for PBW has been working with pediatric offices throughout Southeastern Wisconsin to design materials to educate parents and caregivers of children birth through five on the effects screen time usage has on young eyes. Moderated electronic usage postcards and fact sheets were created to share with pediatric offices and parents providing them with additional activities to do with their children to limit screen time usage and promote healthy growth and development.

I was a member of the Wisconsin Governor’s Early Care and Education Advisory Council on Screening and Assessment Committee. The committee developed and published a blueprint and fact sheets on screening and best practices for childcare providers and parents.

What are some of the challenges you have experienced in your work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

One of the challenges that we have in Wisconsin is that there is not a vision screening law or mandate and therefore, vision screening is not something that happens automatically. We collaborate diligently with our partners to assist, support, collaborate and educate, so that the children in Wisconsin receive a vision screening. We are dedicated to helping our schools with vision screening. That may mean working with the schools’ high school students to assist with vision screening, connecting the school with a university nursing program, or reaching out to a local company to assist with the vision screening.

Another challenge that we face is access to eye care. It can be difficult to find an eye care provider that will see a child who does not know their alphabet and will accept their vision insurance among other barriers to eye care. The team at PBW works hard to help families and our partners navigate the system of care. We are continuing to work on making changes in this area and have made this a priority.

PBW is striving to educate parents, caregivers, and primary care providers on the importance of healthy vision for children as they grow and develop. There is a large list to keep track of as children grow and vision can get overlooked, even in well-child checkups. We strive to educate parents and primary care providers on the critical growth period of a child’s eyes and the importance of vision screenings at well child check-ups and their educational program when offered.

What suggestions do you have for others interested in improving early childhood services and programs?

For PBW, it is through education, talking with our families, and communicating with our partners about the importance of vision health. It is sharing not only the successes, but also sharing the challenges, so that we can work together to find a solution. PBW has a long history of very dedicated partners to the vision health of children in Wisconsin.

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