As training camp heats up this week at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers downtown practice facility, young children attending the camp have a rare opportunity for a completely free eye exam, glasses fitted and cut on the spot.
Created by the Glazer Family Foundation in 2009, Vision Mobile is the interactive, traveling children’s eye clinic which has distributed more than 8,000 pairs of free glasses to kids in 60 Title One schools in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, which includes 24 Buccaneer Academies.
On Tuesday, Tampa Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor made a visit to the Vision Mobile, set up outside the main training facility at 1 Buc Plaza in West Tampa, the large complex that stands just blocks from Raymond James Stadium.
Vision Mobile is an extension of the Vision Program, a health initiative launched by the Glazer Family Foundation and the late owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Malcolm Glazer. From 2006-2009, the Glazer Family Foundation’s Vision Program donated vision screening equipment throughout the Tampa Bay area to help identify vision problems for children within local schools. In 2009, the Foundation introduced the Vision Mobile to strengthen its commitment to correcting vision-related struggles for students.
“If you can’t see, you can’t read; if you can’t read, you can’t learn, and what it also does for the kids for their self-esteem,” said Bucs general counsel David Cohen. “They think the problem is that they just can’t learn but when they realize it’s not up here, it’s here; you put the glasses on, it changes their world and their entire life trajectory.”
Wendy Latimer has a unique set of skills that led to her becoming the bus driver and optical administrator with the Vision Mobile. She was a licensed optometrist in Florida before she moved with her husband to Texas in 2001. There she ended becoming a school bus driver, which is why when her family moved back to Florida and she saw a job listing for someone with years of optical experience with some comfort driving a rare vehicle, she knew she was an ideal candidate for the job.
This will be her fifth school year operating the van, built by Lazydays and includes a Buccaneers themed locker room in the RV’s interior.
Approximately 80 percent of the kids who enter Vision Mobile to get their eyes examined will leave later that day with glasses, Latimer said. The other 20 percent may have prescriptions that are difficult to address the same day. Those prescriptions go to a lab, for delivery when van returns to the school a few weeks later.
“We don’t have the luxury that optometrists do, where they will take a child with very poor vision, and give them maybe half of what they need, and say come back and see me in six months,” Latimer told Castor. “We don’t get that opportunity. So, our doctor prefers just giving them what they need, explaining what they’re going to experience.”
In addition to Castor, also at the Bucs facility Tuesday was Hillsborough County School board head Jeff Eakins and the entire Hillsborough County School Board. They were there to join with students from some of the Buccaneers Academy Schools, which are 24 schools adopted by the NFL franchise through a curriculum-based program that encourages students and encourages learning. Most of the two dozen schools are in economically distressed areas that lack some of the resources to educational success.
On Tuesdays — the team’s days off — during the NFL season, Buccaneer players will often visit Academy Schools, said team COO Brian Ford.
Later, Castor took a lengthy tour of the entire One Buc building, which includes training facilities and the team’s kitchen. This weekend, the Bucs play their first exhibition game of the 2017 season. Meanwhile, they’re also about to become more famous as the focus of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series, with the show’s producers and camera operators working on the sidelines at Tuesday’s practice.