November 26, 2013

Kids Vision for Life gives eyeglasses to needy students

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Health at 11:41 pm by dinaheng

If a student can’t see the blackboard, it’s likely to affect his or her ability to learn.

Through Kids Vision for Life, a project initiated by the Essilor Vision Foundation, students in a growing number of states are getting access to free vision screenings and free eyeglasses, which educators say is making a difference in the classroom.Dinah Eng

The project, which launched in 2008, is backed by Essilor of America, a division of the world’s largest eyeglass lens manufacturer, the Alcon Foundation, Safilo, Lions Clubs International, and other partners.

“It’s incredible to see the need,” says Patrick Esquerré, a board member of Kids Vision for Life and founder of La Madeleine, a chain of French bakery-restaurants in the United States. “People make the connection between literacy, good education, a safe society, and a productive economy, but few people make the connection between having good vision and literacy. You have to be able to see to read.”

According to a 2002 report by the American Optometric Association, 20 percent of all school age children in the United States needed glasses, and 90 percent of those who needed glasses, didn’t have them.

Esquerré says he was tapped by Hubert Sagnieres, chairman and CEO of Essilor, to help launch the student outreach project because of La Madeleine’s involvement in various community volunteer efforts, ranging from support for PBS to local food banks. Today, Esquerré, chairman of the development and expansion committee, travels the country, putting together local coalitions with community and vision-related organizations under the Kids Vision for Life umbrella.

Kids Vision for Life mobile clinic. Photo courtesy of Kids Vision for Life.

Kids Vision for Life mobile clinic. Photo courtesy of Kids Vision for Life.

The project began operating in Texas, with local partnerships organized in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and nearby areas, then expanded to include Southern California and the Atlanta and St. Louis areas. A push to establish a cluster of communities in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore corridor is also underway.

“We go to schools with mobile clinics, which have two optometrists who take care of the children at the schools,” Esquerré explains. “After their exams, the kids can pick out cool frames for their glasses. We make 60 percent of the glasses in the mobile clinics, and 40 percent go to a lab, which makes higher prescription glasses.”

In some areas, community centers may host an event, where 10 to 15 area optometrists will be on-site to examine the children’s vision. More than 56,000 pairs of eyeglasses have been distributed to needy students to date.

Esquerré says the effort has been praised by educators, who notice that getting eyeglasses benefits more than just the student who sees better.

“The principal at an elementary school in Dallas noticed that fourth grade test scores went up two years ago after students received their eyeglasses,” Esquerré says. “In most schools, nurses screen the kids for vision problems, but parents can’t always afford the eyeglasses. We’re excited about bringing this project to everyone who needs help.”

For more info on Kids Vision for Life, check out


November 18, 2013

Courage found in ‘The Burning Sky’

Posted in Between Us column, Books, Women at 10:35 pm by dinaheng

Fantasy, romance and a touch of reality blend nicely in a new young adult novel that author Sherry Thomas calls the beginning of a reverse “Harry Potter” series with a cross-dressing heroine.

In “The Burning Sky” ($17.99, Balzer + Bray), Iolanthe Seabourne is the most powerful mage of her generation, prophesied to defeat the Bane, a dictatorial mage who controls The Realm. To protect her, Prince Titus of Eberon cloaks the girl as a fellow teenage student in his very all-boys boarding school in southeast England, present day.Dinah Eng

In J.K. Rowling’s series, the adventures of a wizard and his friends unfold in a magical realm where they take joy in escaping, for a time, the muggles’ world, where ordinary beings don’t have magical abilities. In Thomas’s series, the magical characters take refuge in our reality as they try to fight the wrongs in their magical realm.

“The Burning Sky” is the first teen novel for Thomas, author of historical romance novels including “Private Arrangements” and “Not Quite a Husband.” She says she had never thought about writing for teens, but her agent had talked with an editor at a publishing house who suggested that her voice would work well in a young adult novel.

“The third time the publisher asked whether I was working on anything for young adults, a sentence fell into my head,” says Thomas, who lives with her family in Austin, Texas. “ ‘On the night I was born, the stars fell.’ I was walking into a Costco when it happened, and when I got home, I did some research and found that the last meteor shower happened in 1866.”

Thomas was familiar with life in the 1880s because she’d researched and written novels  set in that time period, so started creating a fantasy romance series that became The Elemental trilogy. The series chronicles a secret revolution brewing in the Mage World, led by a girl and a boy who join forces to overthrow the tyrannical overlord.

Cover photo of "The Burning Sky" by Sherry Thomas, courtesy of Balzer + Bray.

Cover photo of “The Burning Sky” by Sherry Thomas, courtesy of Balzer + Bray.

Science fiction and romance novels have always appealed to the author, she says,  because their stories are all about overcoming challenges and succeeding in life.

“I think of readers as falling into two camps — one likes to read about the world as it is, and the other likes to read about the world as they’d like it to be,” Thomas says. “I fall in that second camp. In genre fiction, it’s about whether you do what’s right. If you take the right path, do the hard work and follow your heart, everything will come out all right in the end.”

Things have turned out well for Thomas, a Chinese American who immigrated to the United States when she was 13 years old and learned English by reading numerous science fiction and romance novels in her youth.  She attended English as a Second Language classes in middle school, and by 9th grade was placed in regular classes.

Thomas was a 23-year-old stay-at-home mom when she read a historical romance one day as her son was napping.

“As I read it, I thought, I hate this book,” Thomas recalls. “I was so angry at how bad the book was, and how it had stolen my time. So I told my husband, I think I can write a better book. It took eight years, and I discovered how hard it was to write even a bad book.”

Thomas went on to win two RITA Awards for outstanding published novels from the Romance Writers of America, named for the RWA’s first president, Rita Clay Estrada.

“The theme that appeals most to me in fantasy and romance is finding your courage,” the author says. “It’s about that place when you start something, and you’re not sure you have what it takes to do something you’ve not done before. Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s the willingness to do the right thing, even though it’s difficult and you’re afraid.”

It’s also what Iolanthe Seabourne and Prince Titus must do if they are to save the Realm and each other in “The Burning Sky.” For a suspenseful and sweet tale, this book is well worth reading.

November 1, 2013

Steenburgen shines in ‘Last Vegas’

Posted in Between Us column, Movies, Women at 10:58 pm by dinaheng

Life and art mesh beautifully for Academy Award-winning actress Mary Steenburgen in the new CBS Film “Last Vegas.”

Steenburgen, who’s started a second act as a singer/songwriter in real life, plays Diana, a tax attorney who’s started a second career as a singer in a run-down Vegas lounge, fulfilling a lifelong dream. When four friends from Flatbush come to town for a bachelor party, Diana manages to attract two of the guys, changing the lives of all in the process.Dinah Eng

What was it like working with her iconic co-stars — Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline?

“They were all guys who were on my short wish list of people I admired and dreamt of working with one day,” says Steenburgen, sitting down to talk at the ARIA Resort and Casino, where part of the movie was filmed. “Then boom, it happened. I got to have wonderful, meaty scenes with them.

“It was fun being with grownups, talking about life, different people we had worked with, our dreams, and things we wanted to do and haven’t done yet.”

Steenburgen, who has won numerous awards for roles in films like “Melvin and Howard,” “The Help,” and “Ragtime,” says a lot of her dreams are musical. The actress now writes for the Universal Music Publishing Group, and recently co-wrote music for Grammy Award-winning country artist Tim McGraw.

“I love to write jazz and blues,” she says. “There are a lot of people I’d like to write for. I just took up the accordion this year, and would like to get better at it.”

Living life fully is a lesson her character Diana embodies. She doesn’t hesitate to tell the guys who have come to town to party that she’s divorced, was bored, and gave up a stable career to sing.

Mary Steenburgen sings a song she composed herself on "Last Vegas." Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, courtesy of CBS Films.

Mary Steenburgen sings a song she composed herself on “Last Vegas.” Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, courtesy of CBS Films.

“There’s something interesting about a woman who’s honest,” Steenburgen, 60, says. “So often, when you see attraction on the screen, it’s for young women. There’s a lot of coyness and lies told. It’s interesting to see a woman speak her truth and share who she is. It’s disingenuous and silly in a woman my age. Diana’s earned the right to say who she is, and what she wants.”

So what do Baby Boomer women know that Millennial women don’t?

Steenburgen says Millennial women are afraid of the word feminism.

“My reason for calling myself a feminist is that I want every woman and girl on the planet to be safe, educated, and the best she can be,” Steenburgen says. “Feminism doesn’t have anything to do with not loving men. I have a husband and son I adore, and I worship my father. Young women have bought the bad PR that being a feminist makes you less attractive to men.”

As the film “Last Vegas” shows, society has placed a little voice in older people’s minds that says, “You’re too old to do this.” Steenburgen, who has several business ventures,  ranging from a restaurant in Little Rock, Ark. to a candle company, says it’s important to ignore that thought.

Parents will stand on the sidelines of soccer fields and tell their children, “You can do it,” yet don’t allow themselves to try new things, she notes.

“If you’re not living, you’re dying,” she says, “so it’s vitally important to grow. Singing in the movie was terrifying for me. But I knew I had to stare that down.”

Steenburgen and Diana have another thing in common — both find the love of their lives… the second time around.

“When I met the love of my life (actor Ted Danson), it was after I’d looked at some hard truths in myself,” Steenburgen says. “I had to stop blaming others, and focus on measuring my own strengths and weaknesses. Being honest about what I’d done wrong in relationships let me be more open to finding him. If you find that person, stay in gratitude about it. It’s blessed to find your person in life.”

Spoken like a woman who knows the art of living fully.

‘Last Vegas’ wins on many levels

Posted in Between Us column, Movies at 10:57 pm by dinaheng

Put five Academy Award® winning actors together in a crisply written comedy set in Sin City and you’ve got more than a sure-fire hit. You’ve got “Last Vegas.”

All bets are off when the Flatbush Four — four lifelong friends played by Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline — head to Vegas for a bachelor party to celebrate the marriage of group’s avowed bachelor to a woman half his age. When they meet a charming lounge singer named Diana (Mary Steenburgen), the weekend gets complicated.Dinah Eng

The film — which celebrates the power of friendship and love — is funny, touching, and unexpectedly wise because its insights into human relationships are spot on.

“In any group of friends, you’ll have an enormous lack of commonality,” says director Jon Turteltaub, sitting in a meeting room at the ARIA Resort and Casino in Vegas , where part of the movie was filmed. “There’s the guy you love and the guy you can’t stand, yet somehow you still love him. Friends share faith, and the sense that you’re safe with the other person.

“It’s almost more unconditional love than you get in a marriage because it’s not important to be attractive to the other person. You’re allowed to get fat.”

Turteltaub, who has directed such hits as “National Treasure” and “While You Were Sleeping,” says male friendships are marked by how horribly guys treat one other, as men bond by teasing and ripping on each other. This contrasts with the friendships of women, who are more prone to validate each other, he notes.

“Men would have to share an emotion first,” Turteltaub says, laughing. “The emotions shared at the beginning of this film are resentment and anger. It takes the whole movie to get to the fear and regret beneath those emotions.”

Another theme explored in “Last Vegas” deals with living life to the fullest at all stages of life. Sam (Kevin Kline) is lost in too early a retirement in Florida, while Archie (Morgan Freeman) is itching to break out from under the confines of an overly protective son in New Jersey. Paddy (Robert DeNiro) is mourning the loss of his wife in Brooklyn, and Billy (Michael Douglas) is a wealthy Malibu attorney who finally proposes to his girlfriend. When the four get together, the good old days are here again.

Jon Turteltaub directs "Last Vegas" scene. Jon Turteltaub directs scene in "Last Vegas." Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, courtesy of CBS Films.

Jon Turteltaub directs scene in “Last Vegas.” Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, courtesy of CBS Films.

Living life fully and acting your age, the director notes, is not easy.

“Sometimes it’s about not giving in to your age, and sometimes, it means growing up and not going out to chase the girls,” Turteltaub says. “Growing means you have to leave a perceived age behind. The signs are saying, ‘Death — five miles ahead,’ and you have to leave behind the things you love and feel safe with, which is scary.”

Not knowing when the end of our lives will be makes it hard to “pace ourselves with misery,” he adds.

Turteltaub says while members of the Baby Boomer generation may not want to act their age, the generation that followed may be worse, in another respect.

“We stay young at the beginning part of our lives too long, rather than at the end,” he says. “Your body doesn’t let you mess around with getting old, and we struggle with acting our age.”

Turteltaub was contacted by Amy Baer, then president and CEO of CBS Films, who asked him to consider directing “Last Vegas.”

“She sent me the script and said, ‘It’s a really small budget, around $27 million, and we’re not going to pay you a lot, but…’ ” Turtletaub recalls. “Given that, I didn’t read it right away, but when I did, I loved it.”

He says it took about six months to get the leads signed on because everyone was so busy, but once Douglas agreed, the others quickly followed. One of the most important characters in the film may not get screen credit, but Turteltaub puts it this way…

“Vegas is an important character, and may be the antagonist in the movie,” he says. “It’s a city that’s extremely seductive, inviting, and when you get here, extremely intimidating. It’s there to be conquered.”

And that, of course, is just what the Flatbush Four do.