It’s this Wellington couple's mission to give kids the gift of sight.
The article was originally published to Women's Weekly 21 July, 2016
As a child growing up in Fiji, Ravi Dass would often give money to people begging on the street.
“My mother tells me I did it from a very young age,” says the Wellington optometrist, who attributes his social conscience to parents who taught him to help those less fortunate.
It’s an attitude that has seen the 35-year-old and his wife Steph set up a foundation to improve the eyesight of Kiwi kids.
The Foureyes Foundation works with Kiwi primary school-aged children to help diagnose eyesight problems and give free glasses to those who need them.
Ravi, who moved to New Zealand as an eight-year-old, realised there was a need for the foundation after working at a child-centered optometry practice in Auckland.
“I found that around 10-20 per cent of Kiwi kids find school difficult because of their eyesight. But often kids don’t know they have a problem – they just think they can’t focus or have headache or behavioural issues.”
Unfortunately, he says, the government only runs official eyesight checks for newborns, then at pre-school and again at 11 years old. “That means there’s a lot of time for kids’ eyesight to deteriorate.”
It doesn’t help that official screening only checks for a limited range of issues, he adds.
“It doesn’t pick up reading problems, so you can sometimes end up with kids whose learning and development is being held back simply because they need glasses.”
The tipping point was an 18-year-old customer who came to him with vision problems.
“This guy was on the dole, he had no qualifications and couldn’t read or concentrate. He’d gone through school without having his eyes tested or being given glasses. It could have so easily been corrected years ago.”
Last year, Ravi opened his business Mr FourEyes which is run from the Hataitai home he shares with Steph and their two children Manu (4) and four-month-old daughter Nila.
From his purpose-built studio, Ravi fits and makes glasses for customers, which he is usually able to offer at a cheaper rate because he has lower overheads.
The business funds the foundation by operating on a “buy one, gift one” principle.
“Every time a customer buys glasses, we set aside a pair for a child who needs them”.
Steph (37), who gave up her job as an environmental manager to join Ravi in his philanthropic work, says they currently have around 300 pairs of glasses for students who need them.
A recent pilot screening held at a school in Porirua reinforced the need for the foundation.
“Of the 60 or so 10-year-olds we tested, around 19 needed to be tested further,” says Ravi. “Not all of the kids followed up with us but we gave away four pairs of glasses to kids who needed them.”
The couple is set to take their screening process on the road and have already had interest from a school in Invercargill.
“We’d love to talk to remedial teachers because they can identify students with learning difficulties. We can then help determine if these kids are having trouble because of their eyesight, which could be fixed with glasses.”
They’re also busy raising funds for a compact mobile optic screening device that evaluates the strength of children’s eyes and helps identify learning problems caused by poor eyesight. The screening unit is about the size of an iPad, which will allow them to more easily conduct tests, as well as lend it to schools who need it.
“We started a Givealittle page to raise the $14,000 to buy it and so far we’ve been overwhelmed with donations. It’s encouraging to see Kiwis supporting what we’re trying to do.”
Helping others see is second nature to Ravi. In his last year of his optometry degree, he heard about Volunteer Ophthalmic Services Overseas (VOSO), a New Zealand charitable trust that provides free eye aid to people in the Pacific.
He tagged along for two weeks to assist with screening and sight-saving surgery, as well distributing glasses to people in need.
It changed his life.
“I ended up visiting Tonga and Fiji on eight VOSO trips and was blown away by the difference we could make in people’s lives. Until recently, I was also on the VOSO board but had to step down because the Foundation is taking up so much time.”
Yet the couple remains humble about their achievements.
“Both Ravi and I come from families where you help others wherever you can,” says Steph. “Obviously we need to pay our mortgage and raise our two kids but it’s also important to us to help those who need it.”
Words: Sharon Stephenson