Austin Beutner helps students see clearly—in more ways than one.
We all want to believe that when we’re broken and twisted on a deserted mountain trail, from beyond the pain and fear might come some light, some vision to guide us if we ever stand up again. Most of us just wonder. Austin Beutner tested the theory.
“When you’re careening down the mountain and break your neck and other body parts and have to be medevaced out, spend the night in the trauma center, face multiple surgeries—well, you recalibrate,” recalls Beutner of his 2007 mountain bike accident. “I’d saved enough to put my kids through college,” Beutner says of his decision to retire from Evercore Partners, the investment banking group he founded back in the 1990s—a firm that netted him considerably more resources than college tuition for his four kids. “Now I have a chance through my work— my daily activities—to make a difference.”
Beutner shifted gears, but he didn’t slow down. Now he’s making sure public school kids can see their future by first seeing the board—and the teacher—at the front of the room. Founded in 2012, Vision To Learn brings free eye exams and glasses to students in four states, including Hawai`i. “I grew up in a small town, and the highlight of my month was when the bookmobile showed up and I could check out a book,” Beutner says, explaining how his mobile eye lab came to be. Now Vision To Learn buses roll up in front of schools so its doctors can give free eye exams and fit students with free glasses.
The results were immediate and resounding. “I had a boy come up and tell me that he now understood what his science teacher meant when she talked about the leaves on the trees. He’d always seen a green blob. He didn’t know there were individual leaves on the tree,” Beutner says. He’s also quick to point out that the program is cost effective, scalable and perhaps most important, cool in the eyes of the students. “When everyone’s getting new glasses,” he says, “nobody’s being called ‘four eyes.'”
That same excitement showed in the smiles of students at Kalihi Waena Elementary School last August, when they received their new glasses. One at a time, each student put the glasses on, looked around, pulled them off and looked around again, put them back on, and beamed. “Being there that day and seeing the looks on those kids’ faces,” Beutner recalls, “of all the things I’ve seen and done in Hawai`i, those moments were the best—priceless.”
Beutner and his family live part time in Hawai`i, mostly on school breaks, summers and holidays. Th e front lawn of their Lanikai home tells their story: It’s strewn with paddleboards, canoes, bikes—even a sailboat. ‘Ukulele riffs waft across the lawn as Will, the second oldest, masters the strings. Fred Hemmings, the man Beutner sometimes calls his “muse for all things Hawai`i,” sums up Beutner this way: “Austin’s achieved national and international success in the financial world, but in Hawai`i, he’s a local boy. And for a newcomer, that’s the ultimate compliment.”
When the school year ends in May, Vision To Learn will have served more than 500 students on O`ahu and provided glasses to about two thirds of them. With local partners and increased interest in the program around the state, Beutner reports they are looking to expand the project to more O`ahu schools and to the neighbor islands next year and beyond. As for the Beutner family—and the program they’ve poured their energies into—it looks like they’re here to stay.