A Look Into the Future: San Diego Teen Seeks to Improve Vision Care Access

Daily Point of Light # 7839 Jun 21, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Sydney Zhang. Read his story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light. 

Sydney Zhang, 16, was just a kid when he got glasses. As anyone who has been through the experience knows, it’s an important moment, and it changed the way he looked at the world both literally and figuratively.  

Today, Sydney volunteers at a local eye care clinic helping patients, many of whom are seniors experiencing vision issues or non-native English speakers who need help translating. He founded a student-run 501(c)(3) called VisionCure in 2023 to prevent common eye diseases amongst seniors and underserved communities through access eye care services and education. They have held 21 learning events so far. Sydney built EyeScore, a specialized app to assist with his mission, raising $3,500 for app development and outreach and garnering multiple national awards in the process.  

Along with the 60+ hours a month Sydney spends helping others, he is pursuing an MD-PhD program. He has always been fascinated by science and hopes to combine research and clinical work into a career that uses his biggest passions. 

What inspires you to volunteer? 

When I was around nine years old, I started experiencing blurry vision and couldn’t see the words on the whiteboard in my class. This is when I started to wear glasses. A lot of my classmates were wearing glasses or contact lenses, too, and I realized how essential vision was to daily life.

Grace Loyola, Westview’s office manager, and Sydney collect used eyeglasses during a drive he initiated for the San Diego Lions Club. In the end, he donated more than 900 pairs.

In 2019, I started to volunteer at a local eye care center helping patients with vision issues. Our neighborhood has many families with diverse cultural backgrounds, including first-generation immigrants from China and India.  

When COVID hit and screen time increased, many of my friends and relatives were diagnosed with eye-related diseases. My mother and grandma were diagnosed with dry eye disease (DED), and at the senior house where my grandparents live, dry eye symptoms became a problem among residents. It’s a common issue. I wanted to help these seniors who have limited access to necessary eye care services.  

Tell us about your volunteer role with Westview Optometry and VisionCure. 

At Westview Optometry, I started with office cleaning, helping patients check in, paperwork and some Chinese translation. Later, I started helping patients with document scanning and general IT support. I also initiated a used eyeglasses drive and collected more than 900 pairs for the San Diego Lions Club.  

I’m the CEO and founder of VisionCure. I lead a dedicated team of 10+ volunteers—students and parents—in outreach to local communities. We host monthly eye care education events, and I work on networking and fundraising.  

I also created an app called EyeScore that uses computational algorithms for early dry eye diagnosis from home for free. I published this in a peer-reviewed paper in 2023. Eye doctor appointments can be really expensive. Not enough people get the exams that can be critical, so current diagnosis of DED is often delayed with severe complications. We went to senior centers and demoed it for them as an intergenerational initiative with students.  

Can you explain your smartphone app?  

Eye blink counts are a proven biomarker for dry eye diagnosis. So, app users take a one-minute video, and then my app calculates their eye blink rates and uses it for analysis along with a questionnaire with their age, gender, contact lenses and where and whether they’re experiencing eye discomfort. The purpose of my app is to produce a single, easily understandable number. It’s called a 10-point scale eye health score. For example, zero to three is healthy, four to six is pre-dry eye disease and seven to 10 is dry eye disease. 

What are your long-term plans or goals for the organization? 

Based on feedback and observations at our senior center demos, I’ve started to design the 2.0 version of EyeScore to include a multi-language platform to support non-English-speaking families, a better questionnaire and a scaled point system that can better analyze a patient’s responses. I plan to reach out to the broader international dry eye community and publish EyeScore in the Apple App Store.  

I also want to continue working with local community organizers serving seniors. My goal is to increase awareness about DED and expand access to the technology patients deserve. In the long term, I hope to grow VisionCure with more volunteers and funding in order to make more contributions. 

Dedicated to improving community eye care services, VisionCure founder and CEO Sydney Zhang develops smartphone app “EyeScore” for convenient, in-home eye exams.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work? 

Helping seniors. It’s critical for youth to understand how many seniors are in poor health without proper medical services, including eye care. That’s really what pushed me to help.  

If you could wave a magic wand and fix something about eye clinics everywhere to make them more helpful for seniors, what would you change?  

I want seniors to be able to have the experience of going to the eye doctor. While there, it can take time, and patients are often waiting for the results. If it was one thing, I would just want diagnoses to be fast, so patients can easily understand what they’re going through and get treatment.  

I created EyeScore for use at home. There are a lot of issues with health insurance, so not many people actually go to the eye doctor. It’s critical that people get the healthcare they need. 

Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about? 

It was a life-changing experience for me. When people get involved, they realize how impactful their actions can be. For example, when I first demoed my EyeScore app, 20 seniors signed up. They really needed help with their eye health, and my app could do that.  

What do you want people to learn from your story? 

I want to inspire fellow students to work together for a better world. Start with something small. When you do something small every single day, it builds up to even more meaningful action. 

I also recommend working for and learning from seniors. These exchanges can bridge the gap and help benefit society for a more sustainable and brighter future. And I believe that the use of advanced technology, including AI, can be critical tools to address many challenges. 

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Sydney? Find local volunteer opportunities. 

Kristin Park