This Thanksgiving, gratitude is being served us as never before by one Sandusky family. It’s the first holiday, the first family gathering in which their 7-year-old boy will be able to look across the table and see clearly the faces of his loved ones.
When we first heard about Bentley Koch and his eSight glasses, we were wowed by the technology. But then we found something even greater than the science that is transforming his life. It’s the power in people – Bentley’s community to make wonderful things happen, without even asking.
Bentley was born with a condition called Optic Nerve Hypoplasia. It’s the job of the optic nerves to transmit impulses from the membrane lining of the retina to the brain. But in Bentley’s case, those optic nerve fibers never developed fully. He has limited vision in his periphery and is legally blind.
“I can’t see as good as most people. Things are smaller than usual," is how Bentley explains his condition.
Though no treatment or surgery would improve Bentley’s sight, the Koch’s insisted there would be excuses either. Together which his teachers, aides and support staff at Margaretta Elementary school, they made sure Bentley would learn, read, grow and develop like all young kids should. A life full of opportunities, blind or not.
But then last Spring, an opportunity the Koch family never expected, rolled right up to their home.
“Miss Susie and Miss Martha," is how Bentley refers to his bus driver and driver's aide. The same caring employees that deliver him safely to and from school every day had another delivery: a newspaper article about electronic glasses called eSight, designed to help the legally blind.
Susie Haynes knew Bentley’s dad Drew but didn't know if she should give him the article. For days it sat in an envelope on the bus dashboard.
“I wasn’t sure if I was overstepping my bounds, by saying “Hey read this article. Maybe it could help your kid?” Miss Susie said.
Martha Dyer, the aide on Susie’s bus, gave her the push she needed.
“I said “it’s not going to hurt and if they’ve already seen it, and it’s not going to work, they can throw it away. At least it’s given to them and they can make the decision.” They are nice people," Martha explained.
And with that Miss Susie and Miss Martha handed the article to Drew. Once he and his wife Shelby read it, they jumped into action. Shelby filled out a six-page application. For weeks they didn’t hear anything and then a call out of the blue, from Toronto. Bentley was a good candidate.
“From the very first phone call eSight was the most amazing company, they have been the nicest people to work with,” Shelby said.
The Koch’s set up an appointment with an eSight employee in Cleveland. Even though the company thought he was a good match, there were no guarantees the glasses would help. But even before the glasses were adjusted, Bentley could not contain his excitement. “Whoa. These help a lot!” “Can you see me and Daddy?” Shelby asked. “Yeah, I can see you real good!”
One of the first things he noticed as he scanned the faces of his parents, dad Drew has blue eyes.
“It was heartwarming to see. We had him put them on, walk around the room, go outside and see the trees and clouds. Yeah, it was incredible,” Drew said.
eSight glasses contain a high-speed, high-definition camera that captures whatever the user is looking at. That video feed is enhanced and displayed on two OLED screens in front of the user’s eyes. Full-color video images can be seen with clarity and almost zero delays. Images are enlarged for view by using a handheld remote control that gives audio cues each time a change in magnification is made.
The headset looks like a cross between a pair of sunglasses and virtual reality goggles. They fit over wearer’s prescription glasses.
The glasses do come with a hefty price tag, about $10,000, and are not covered by insurance. The company does offer fundraising pages for patients, and unlike other donation sites, does not take a percentage.
The Koch family came up with the down payment and then started a fundraising page. They were prepared to wait for months or longer to raise the money. But the community wasn’t having it. Within about a week, Bentley’s page reached $10,000.
“Some of the people we knew. Some people we didn’t. Lots of teachers from Bentley’s school. Those people we can never ever repay," Shelby said wanting to make sure she thanked everyone who contributed.
Community groups, scout troops, Lions clubs, softball leagues, you name it. Plenty of anonymous donations too.
The money didn’t stop coming in. The community raised an additional $4,000 for a warranty and to pay a portion of the next eSight glasses Bentley might receive.
“Side Trax Bar and Grill here in Sandusky, they went ahead and threw a benefit for us,” Shelby said.
“We wanted to raise 4-grand. And we raised a little more,” said bar manager Keri Lakner.
“Everybody in the community, the people that reached out to him was amazing,” said Andrea Strause, one of the community members who gave.
Miss Susie and Miss Martha remember hearing the news that eSight did help their young passenger. “I went in and told Courtney our boss and we both cried together. You know because it’s something good. I get goosebumps every time I think about him getting these glasses,” said Susie.
Bentley’s eSight glasses were delivered in October, but opened with the same excitement for Christmas morning and witnessed by parents, filled with so much gratitude for their community: “Never will they know how much they’ve done and how much we appreciate them and what they’ve done for us,” said Shelby.
“The world is starting over for him. It’s basically starting over fresh and we want him to see everything the world has to offer,” she added.
Right now, Bentley wears the glasses for a little more than an hour a day. He will gradually wear them for a longer period of time, but never all day.
He uses them in school, but still relies on Braille to for periods when he is not wearing his glasses.
He looks forward to wearing them at a Luke Bryan concert. He went last year with his parents and could not see his favorite country singer’s face.
The next time Luke Bryan comes to northeast Ohio, Bentley says he’s wearing his glasses to see Bryan’s face for the first time.