Danielle Gordon already has a successful career as an optometrist, but saw an opportunity to raise awareness about children’s vision issues and create a project that connects kids with books; promoting the many benefits of reading.

“The more reading and writing that happens in our community, the more reading and writing that our kids do — it really does have a scalable and significant impact in our community,” Gordon says.

But if a child has undiagnosed vision issues, they may miss out on valuable reading years.

This is why Gordon set out to create the Fit to Read Project, which hosts book drives and other community events — all with the goal of having children profit from the benefits of reading.

Why optometry?

Stemming from a love of science and an interest in one-on-one patient interactions, optometry was a natural choice for Gordon.

Since then, she has built a career for herself and is opening a clinic of her own this spring.

But more than anything, her time as an optometrist has fostered a passion for children’s vision issues. Specifically, the relationship between vision and early literacy.

Statistics say that 80 per cent of learning happens visually, which means that good vision is crucial for students to be able to reach their academic potential. Because of this, Gordon knows the value of catching children who are struggling with their eyesight early on.

And she sees examples of it all the time.

“I had one [kid] — her prescription was high enough that to see a television across the room would be incredibly blurry,” she explains. “I prescribed her glasses and her reaction when she put them on, she almost fell over. There’s leaves on trees — she had no idea.”

When this child came back a year later, her mother explained that her handwriting had improved, her marks shot up, and her confidence in school was significantly greater.

Vision and learning: How are they connected?

Many children who have undiagnosed vision issues struggle with the education system and are left feeling unmotivated. But those early school years are especially important.

Jodi Nickel, a professor in the department of education at Mount Royal University, explains that not developing early literacy skills can put a student’s future at risk.

“If a child doesn’t learn how to read, or is behind grade level in grade three, the odds of them not finishing high school are higher, the odds of them ending up in prison — it has everything to do with their confidence and their success in all the other subjects in school.”

While an undetected vision issue could make school more challenging for a child, Nickel believes that there’s still an upside.

“A child that’s been frustrated a long time, they’ve established a lot of unhealthy habits or unhealthy attitudes, but once they get glasses, we can hope that things are going to pick up more quickly,” she says.

While a learning disability, for example, could cause a lifetime of challenges, if a child’s vision issues are corrected, Nickel believes that they’ll be able to make up the lost ground.

LittleLibraryCalgary Reads works to increase book access for children. One of the spots this happens is the Children’s Reading Place, a heritage house in Inglewood that has been transformed into a reading hub for school groups and families to enjoy. Photo by Alaina Shirt

Why books?

Working in collaboration with the non-profit Calgary Reads, the project aims to promote reading and connect children with books. The proceeds from their events and apparel goes back to the organization.

Shannon King, the communications lead at Calgary Reads, says that Gordon’s willingness to take the reins and get things done is admirable.

“She initiates all of it — she’s driven and inspired and just goes out and does it,” King says.

Knowing that Calgary Reads can always use more books, the project hosted their first book drive in October 2018.

Gordon says that she didn’t really know what to expect going into it, and hoped for a few hundred books. But the total ended up being over 975.

“It’s kind of like, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m doing a book drive,’ and then a month later we get 1000 books on our doorstep,” says King.

“As an organization with limited resources and capacity, when we have people, groups and organizations in the community that takes the initiative and runs with it, it’s the absolute best scenario.”

While children’s vision issues and her career as an optometrist are intrinsically linked, Gordon has always been an advocate for reading.

The child of parents she describes as “voracious readers,” Gordon spent much of her youth entangled in a great story.

“A good book can bring you calm, it can bring you peace, it can give you new ideas, it can change your perspective,” she says.

Even more so, reading is one of the most easily accessible forms of self-education.

Gordon’s mother was a librarian, so books were never in short supply. But knowing that many kids in Calgary don’t have that same access was part of her inspiration to start Fit to Read.

“Everyone talks about the value of education, the value of reading and there’s nothing else that can — for example — get you out of a socio-economic rut, than educating yourself.”

And it all builds.

“My love of reading’s enabled me to love learning, which has enabled me to find a career I enjoy and to give that love of reading to my kids,” Gordon says.

As a professor to future teachers, Nickel also believes in the power of reading, and she hopes to pass that on.

“I tell my students regularly, give yourself a pat on the back. You are literally changing the world, one child at a time,” she says. “I think most of them are convinced.”

Editor: Brian Cortez | mcortez@cjournal.ca

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