Austin Beutner

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Austin Beutner’s press event last week was a stone’s throw from  Downtown Los Angeles. Still, the Boyle Heights happening put together by the businessman, former deputy mayor and, briefly, candidate for mayor had an important message for Downtowners, particularly for executives in fancy offices on the upper floors of area high-rises.

Beutner showed up at the Downtown-adjacent Dolores Mission Elementary School, just across the First Street Bridge, to tout Vision to Learn, the 501(c)(3) he founded a year ago to help make sure all kids in local elementary schools who need glasses get them. The message for Downtown leaders came in the fact that Beutner didn’t spend years meeting with city officials and crafting expensive studies before coming up with a program. Instead, he identified a problem, realized nothing was being done about it and took action.

This does not happen frequently in Los Angeles or any other city. Still, it’s a fantastic case of leading by example. Hopefully others in Downtown, including the community’s many well connected and affluent business leaders, realize other problems could also be addressed by private-sector individuals who have resources and drive.

Vision to Learn had its first major event last year at the Castelar Elementary School in Chinatown. Since then, the program’s huge repurposed bus has driven all across Los Angeles, stopping at various public schools. More than 5,000 eye exams have been conducted and nearly 3,700 pairs of glasses have been dispensed, according to program officials.

The bus is impressive, with high-tech machines for eye exams. After kids get tested, they meet with an on-bus doctor who helps determine whether glasses are in fact needed. If they are, the students choose frames. Lenses are ground and the free glasses arrive about two weeks later.

Beutner said the cost works out to about $100 a child and that the bus can service up to 70 kids a day. He also said administrative costs account for only about 10% of the budget. The bus runs five days a week and Beutner plans to expand the program to Sacramento in the spring and four to six cities next year. 

This is something that, in a perfect world, would not require the lead of a private sector individual. Beutner said the idea began when he learned that an estimated 15% of local students need glasses but were not getting them. He called the LAUSD superintendent who told him nothing was being done to fix the problem. So Beutner dug into his own pocket to start the program. It took about three months to go from concept to helping the first kids, he said.

It is not cheap, and this is where being a politically connected investment banker has its benefits. Beutner has been able to hire a staff and establish funding and other relationships with entities including Rotary clubs and the William H. Hannon Foundation.

Vision to Learn is a wonderful reminder that we don’t need to wait for elected leaders to make a difference on community problems. Hopefully some Downtown players will see other shortfalls and realize that they too can achieve a solution without going through the usual, time-consuming channels.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2012