Optometrist hopeful, Davis High grad, starts with iSight

To hide his bad eyesight, 8-year-old Austin Ofreneo would steal his older sister's glasses.

The spectacles helped him see the chalkboard at school. He'd conceal them in his desk to save him the embarrassment he was sure would result from wearing glasses.

A teacher caught on, and raised concerns about Ofreneo's eyesight with his parents. That led to a doctor's visit, and the beginning of Ofreneo understanding that he could play sports, wear contacts and keep the image he wanted.

Despite his early reservations about glasses and eye doctors, Ofreneo, 22, is applying to optometry school and was instrumental in starting an optometry club at UC Merced. Through the club, Ofreneo and classmates performed more than 300 vision screenings on Merced preschool children this school year.

"When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to do something in health care. Optometry fit me the most. It fit my personality, and it's easy to relate to eye care," Ofreneo said.

The Davis High School graduate chose the University of California at Merced because of its intimate environment, saying "it was a blank slate. You can start off fresh."

UC Merced's vision club -- iSight -- has about 15 members, most of whom were trained and certified to give vision screenings.

The preschoolers were given motility tests -- following a pencil with their eyes -- and acuity tests -- reading letters from a vision chart.

"It's a chance to get hands-on experience," Ofreneo said. "It benefits both parties. At age 3 or 4, the kids might not realize anything is wrong with their eyes. Sometimes, they can't tell the difference between what's blurry and what's clear."

Leslie Schleth, lead nurse at the Merced City School District, was thankful for iSight's help. With 650 preschoolers at 12 schools, it's hard for Schleth's limited staff to give health screenings to all the youngsters.

"The chances of correcting something identified at a young age are better in terms of vision," said Schleth, who works with four other full-time nurses to cover the district's 11,000 children. They perform vision, hearing and dental exams at certain ages.

"This year, we were able to do more" because of iSight volunteers, she said. "It takes a lot to do those preschool screenings. At that age, the children have short attention spans and are fidgety."

Ofreneo said the club's new leaders intend to continue the screenings next school year.

Ofreneo graduated last month with a bachelor's degree in human biology. He is taking a year to fill out optometry school applications and study for the tough entrance exam. He'll continue working at his optometrist's office.

"Austin is an outstanding young individual," said Ofreneo's doctor, Ed Nuccio, who practices at the Stanislaus Optometric Center Inc. in Modesto. "He's what this country is all about -- taking an opportunity and grabbing ahold of it."