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$3.8 million set aside for 3 long-term goals

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Grumbling stomachs and blurry vision begone for underprivileged schoolchildren, and forget about any out-of-school distractions.

That’s happening in Collier County thanks to the Naples Children & Education Foundation earmarking $3.8 million this year toward three initiatives to address vision, hunger and out-of-school programs.

The foundation sponsors the Naples Winter Wine Festival annually to raise money for charities that serve local children.

Funding for long-term strategic initiatives is separate from annual grants to charities, but both are made possible because of money raised at the wine festival. The 2015 festival was held Jan. 23-25. Annual grant awards will be announced March 9.

In 2005 and 2010, the foundation commissioned studies to identify significant gaps in children’s services, leading to long-term initiatives involving multiple partners for comprehensive solutions. To date, $42 million has been dedicated to seven long-term endeavors.

The vision initiative, called “Now You See It,” will receive $1 million over three years from the $3.8 million awarded this year, according to a recent NCEF announcement.

The program is a collaboration of the Bonita Springs Lions Eye Clinic, Florida’s Vision Quest and Lighthouse of Collier. About 20,000 children a year are screened.

The money ensures children in school and enrolled in child care centers receive eye exams and two pairs of glasses, one for school and one for home, if needed. There’s also summer services for visually impaired children.

The Lions’ Club role is to perform exams of children with special vision issues, like lazy eye, at its Bonita Springs Lions Eye Clinic, Char Lupke, executive director of the clinic, said. Clinic ophthalmologists provide patches or drops to address lazy eye or treatment for other conditions, she said. The clinic has seen 14 Collier children with special vision issues since last year, she said.

The out-of-school initiative is receiving $1.5 million for programs before and after school, during holidays and summers. Part of the focus is to provide innovative learning activities so kids don’t slip back on what they have learned during times when school is out.

The initiative started in 2012 and is focused in Immokalee, and first brought all out-of-school providers together to align goals, eliminate duplicated programs and expand services where needed, Jamie Scott, the project coordinator, said.

“We provide opportunities for them to have a safe place to go and a meaningful place to go,” Scott said.

To date, 4,431 students in Immokalee have been served during the school year and summer programs, she said.

The children’s hunger initiative, called “Lunch Boxes of Love,” is receiving $1.3 million over three years to continue providing nutritious food to needy children and their families. The partners are the Harry Chapin Food Bank, Meals of Hope and NCEF.

Harry Chapin uses its share of the funding, nearly $1 million for the next three years, to buy food for its mobile food pantry which visits schools and distributes food during the school year, Miriam Pereira, development director of Harry Chapin, said. The mobile pantry also distributes some packaged food from Meals of Hope, she said. The pantry also provides fresh produce, she said.

The mobile pantry visits a school at the end of the day for a two-to three-hour stay and will distribute food to as many as 300 needy families. A school notifies parents a head of time through a recorded message, she said.