Unite for Sight

by Dr. Jessie Voigts / May 31, 2008 /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Recently we posted some job opportunities from an impressive organization called Unite for Sight. I was so taken by the work that they do that I asked Jennifer Staple, the Founder and CEO of Unite for Sight, for an interview. Jennifer's story is so exciting - it truly shows the power of one person's dream to change the world.

WE: Jennifer, please tell us about Unite for Sight...

JS: Unite For Sight's goal is to empower communities worldwide to improve eye health and eliminate preventable blindness. Unite For Sight's unwavering commitment to creating a real, lasting impact involves three types of programs: chapters in North America, international eye care outreach programs, and an annual global health conference. Unite For Sight has trained more than 4,000 volunteers who work in their local communities and abroad to provide eye health programs for those without previous access and has provided eye care services to more than 600,000 people worldwide.

Unite For Sight's eye care programs are operating in communities in North America, Africa, and Asia.

I founded Unite For Sight during my sophomore year at Yale University in fall 2000. During the previous summer, I worked as a clinical ophthalmology research associate. While interacting with low-income patients, I learned about eye diseases that could have been prevented by early medical intervention. Their poignant stories made me recognize the need for community programs to promote eye health, motivating me to found Unite For Sight.

Unite For Sight has grown from a community-based Yale student organization in New Haven, Connecticut, to a global nonprofit organization. Unite For Sight has 90 chapters throughout the world, developed international programs that provide sight-restoring eye care to more than 200,000 people annually in Africa and Asia, and coordinates an annual global health conference that convenes more than 2,200 participants from 60 countries. Since its inception, Unite For Sight has provided eye care services to more than 600,000 people worldwide. More than 80,000 volunteer hours of direct eye care service are contributed each year by the approximately 650 volunteers at university chapters and the 250 volunteers who travel abroad annually to assist at Unite For Sight's partner local eye clinics. Hundreds of additional volunteers participate each year in other capacities, including graphic design, web design, and fundraising.

Unite For Sight's unwavering commitment to creating real, lasting impact involves three types of programs.
* Chapters in North America: University student volunteers provide vision screenings and education programs in local community centers such as at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Those screened are matched with free health coverage programs so that they can receive a complete eye exam by an eye doctor.
* International Eye Care Outreach Programs: The goal of Unite For Sight and its partner eye clinics and communities is to create eye disease-free communities. Unite For Sight's volunteers (local and visiting) work with partner eye clinics to provide eye care in communities without previous access. The eye clinic's eye doctors and Unite For Sight volunteers jointly provide community-based screening programs in rural villages. The clinic's eye doctors diagnose and treat eye disease in the field, and surgical patients are brought to the eye clinic for surgery. Unite For Sight sponsors all of the eye care programs, including providing patients with free surgery so that no patient remains blind due to lack of funds. In addition to Unite for Sight's measurable impact, there is an equally compelling achievement. The organization has found a way to unite doctors, nurses, students, and other people, especially younger people, across borders, across economic status, and across professional lines.
* Global Health and Social Entrepreneurship Conference: The conference annually convenes more than 2,200 participants from all 50 states and more than 55 countries. The conference participants represent a great range of diversity, including students, nurses, doctors, policy-makers, nonprofit directors and volunteers, public health professionals, health educators, community health workers, researchers, social scientists, social workers, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, teachers, lawyers, and business executives. The goal of the conference is to exchange ideas and best practices across disciplines in order to improve public health and international development. Participants are encouraged to attend presentations in fields that may be outside of their existing expertise so that they can learn about successful strategies in other fields and apply those ideas to their own work.

Since 2003, Unite For Sight has:
* Provided direct eye care services to more than 600,000 people worldwide
* Coordinated and sponsored 14,081 sight-restoring surgeries by local ophthalmologists at partner eye clinics.
* Donated 140,000 eyeglasses annually to partner eye clinics.
* Trained 3,005 volunteers in North America to provide vision screenings in their local communities. Patients screened are matched with free health coverage programs so that they can receive a complete eye exam by an eye doctor.
* Trained 922 volunteers from North America, Europe, and Australia, to serve as support staff at eye clinics in developing countries.
* Trained hundreds of community volunteers in Ghana and India to assist Unite For Sight outreach teams with providing ongoing eye care in their local villages and refugee camps.
* Engaged 4,127 volunteers to "Unite For Sight" and provide direct eye care services in their local community and abroad.
* Annually contributed 80,000 volunteer hours of direct eye care service by volunteers at university chapters in North America and by volunteers who travel abroad to assist Unite For Sight's partner eye clinics.
* Convened more than 2,200 participants from 50 states and from more than 55 countries for Unite For Sight Global Health Conference

Unite For Sight's programs are sustainable, focus on building local capacity, and create long-term change. All of the eye care programs are led locally in Ghana and India by the eye clinic's ophthalmic staff. The outreach teams (comprised of the local eye clinic's staff and Unite For Sight volunteers) travel daily into remote villages, slums, and refugee camps, to provide on-site eye care. Patients requiring surgery are transported to the eye clinic and then returned to their home village after their operation. Eye care is provided on a monthly basis to all villages that are visited by the outreach team, which is important to eliminate preventable blindness. One month after their operation, the postoperative surgery patients receive evaluation by the outreach team that revisits their village. During that same visit, new patients from the village and surrounding area are evaluated, treated, and selected for surgery. This process continues, thereby providing ongoing eye care to the communities.

Unite For Sight not only restores vision, but also empowers patients and their families. Blindness in the developing world has a significant effect on families, employment, income, and on the education of children within the family. Social stigma related to blind patients is commonplace in many communities in the developing world. Those who are blind are oftentimes considered to be a burden to the family because they are not able to contribute to a family's income. Additionally, instead of attending school, children within a family are frequently assigned to the role of the caregiver of blind adults.

"Being blind means that your liberty is ceased; you live on Earth, but in a different world not part of Earth. Now, the family can come to me with their problems for me to give advice, but when I was blind, one could never remember that I was important to the family. I want to give my thanks and appreciation to all those who are working with Unite For Sight that made me important again."- Buduburam Refugee Camp Unite For Sight Patient Whose Sight Was Restored

WE: Thank you so much, Jennifer. Your work is both extraordinary and inspiring!

To learn more about Unite for Sight, including volunteer opportunities, please see: http://www.uniteforsight.org/