A one-of-a-kind vision-screening program for Toronto schoolchildren is giving foreign-trained doctors a rare opportunity to improve their skills so they can apply to Canadian medical residency programs.

The community health project, operating out of 150 schools within the Toronto District School Board, not only puts free glasses on kids but has given dozens of international medical graduates the experience they need to succeed. 

"Prior to this I was working in a call centre making minimum pay and I was not able to work on my Canadian medical exams," Rajkumar Luke Vijendra Das said while working at an eye screening clinic set up at The Elms Junior Middle School in Etobicoke. 

Rajkumar Luke Vijendra Das, doctor

Rajkumar Luke Vijendra Das trained and worked as a family physician in India, he says working with the vision screening clinic has been crucial to his application for the Ontario family medicine program. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The family physician trained and worked in India before immigrating to Canada five years ago. He's had to pass four equivalency exams, a requirement to entering any Canadian residency program. 

"I recently had an interview for the family medicine program in Ontario and I would say this job has been crucial."

The job sees International Medical Graduates (IMGs) travel from school-to-school running pediatric health clinics, including vision and hearing screening, for primary-aged schoolchildren.

Funded by the charity Toronto Foundation for Student Success (TFSS), the program has employed 65 IMGs since it started in 2007, eight of whom have now gone on to be employed as doctors in Canada. 

"We're very proud of the program and while it was not designed as an employment for international medical graduates, it has been one of the rewarding offshoots," TFSS executive director Catherine Parsonage said. 

Nabila Khalid, intern

Nabila Khalid says the program is helping her gain the perspective of being a doctor in a Canadian setting. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

She doesn't know of any other employer in Toronto actively hiring foreign-trained doctors, adding with a laugh that it's a celebration when they quit to pursue a medical residency. 

Pakistani internist Nabila Khalid hopes that day is coming soon for her.

Gently coaxing a young student to read through a series of letters with one eye covered, she explains retraining in Canada is expensive — about $10,000 to complete the exams, then a competitive interview process to secure a residency spot. 

It is tough, she explains, especially when hands-on experience is difficult to find.   

"I am missing the perspective of being a doctor in a Canadian setting, so when I participate as a community health worker in a vision screening clinic, I am learning to contribute in a way that is very satisfying."

Meantime, as 10-year old Arwad Isse quietly admits that he relies on his friend to read the chalkboard, Khalid can see her contribution is making a real difference. 

Arwad Isse, kid trying on glasses

Arwad Isse has to sit at the front of the class to read the chalkboard, or ask a friend for help. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"I can't see to do my work unless I sit at the front and so I think glasses will really help," the Grade 5 student explains to Khalid. 

Arwad is one of the 15,000 Toronto students who will have his eyes tested by an IMG this year, and depending on the results, may be among the 2,700 expected to need a free pair of glasses, which are donated by eye-ware company Essilor. 
"We're able to help kids and families doing this job and I think that is why we got into medicine in the first place," Vijendra Das said. 

He said he should learn in the next month whether he has been accepted into an Ontario family-medicine residency program. 

"I have my fingers crossed because I want to help even more Canadian kids succeed."