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How Sightsavers is Changing Lives in India

Non-profit, World

So often, the reporting about NGOs focuses on statistics. While these numbers can be impressive, the true stories about the lives an NGO transforms can be far more revealing. In May 2018, Sightsavers announced a new social media campaign designed to highlight the aspirations and successes of the blind and visually impaired citizens they serve in India. The Twitter hashtag, #UnfoldTheirDreams, was created to help disseminate these stories. These heart-warming accounts, as told from the perspective of those whose lives have been transformed by Sightsavers, have had an unexpected secondary purpose. They underscore why Sightsavers has remained in continuous operation for sixty-eight years and why they have thousands of volunteers and donors supporting their gallant efforts.

Sightsavers does charitable work in thirty countries, including some of the poorest regions of the world. The organization has been working in India since 1966, screening people for eye diseases in order to catch the diseases early so they can intervene before permanent blindness sets in. They provide antibiotics to thousands, teach people how to avoid eye infections that lead to vision loss, and perform eye surgeries to restore eyesight. Sightsavers also helps those with vision disabilities overcome the social stigma they often face. Additionally, they give them the tools they need to integrate into society and lead productive lives. The following is a small sampling of the many inspiring stories that thankful Indian citizens have shared about Sightsavers.

Simpi, a ten year old little girl, had never been to school due to her visual impairments. After learning about the girl’s circumstances, Sightsavers intervened through their Inclusive Education Program, which strives to enable equal educational opportunities for blind and visually impaired children. Sightsavers convinced Simpi’s parents to allow her to attend school with the other children in the village. They also provided her with a Braille reader and large print school books. To Simpi’s credit, she seized the opportunity provided her with gusto and studied very hard. When she took her school exams and scored a passing grade, she became an inspiration to her entire village. The future now looks bright for Simpi and everyone continues to cheer her on.

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Sightsavers helps people of all ages in India. Madhav is a seventy-two year old man who is locally famous as the “paratha wala.” Paratha is a delicious Indian “street food” that is a flat bread that is soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside. People eat it plain hot off the grill or sometimes it is stuffed with vegetables and meat. Wala basically means a man who is a vendor. In his sixties,  Madhav developed cataracts that became so bad he became legally blind and was no longer able to make paratha. After going to the doctor, he found out he could not afford the cataract surgery he needed to reverse the blindness setting in. Fortunately, a friend took him to a vision center operated by Sightsavers and set up an appointment at a hospital for Madhav to receive cataract surgery free of charge.

Not only did the cataract surgery totally transform Madhay’s own life, it turned him into one of the biggest supporters of Sightsavers. Since his own surgery and positive outcome, Madhav has sent dozens of people to their vision centers. He also helps to set up “vision camps” sponsored by Sightsavers in remote areas. So, Sightsavers helped Madhav and he has decided to pay that forward by helping others! This is the type of effect Sightsavers has on people’s lives. In the morning, Madhav continues to make his delicious flat bread. Once he’s sold out for the day, he walks to see others who desperately need Sightsavers’ eye care and convinces them to seek help. Madhay, along with Sightsavers, is an inspiration to us all.

In cases where vision cannot be restored, Sightsavers often steps in to help those who are blind or partially blind get the training they need to live a happy productive life. Anam is a man who was blind and unable to work. Worse, he felt like a burden to his family. Sightsavers helped him receive training from a blind school that taught him how to attend to basic daily tasks on his own. This new found independence gave him so much confidence, he has now become an ice cream vendor making about fifty-five rupees a day, enough to support his family. He now encourages others who have vision disabilities to have confidence in themselves, seek help, and live productive lives too.

Unsanitary bathing conditions can often cause or exacerbate eye infections that lead to blindness or partial blindness in India. In fact, about fifteen million Indians face blindness, much of it avoidable blindness! Sonali is an example of how bathing in ponds containing the microorganisms that cause blindness can exacerbate a problem. A boy in her village threw a rock which hit her square in the eye. This caused severe damage to her eye and a cataract formed on her eye. Bathing in the local pond may have caused a secondary infection which made the condition even worse.

After Sonali and her parents attended an eye clinic put on by Sightsavers, she was able to get a free surgery that corrected her eye problem. She and her family was also taught not to let her bathe in the pond, at least for a while, and not to rub potentially contaminated water in her eye until it healed completely. Ganga, a health activist with the National Health Mission in India, explains that it takes building trust with the people in the communities to get them to accept the advice and help from Sightsavers’ staff and volunteers. She explains that one bad experience can negate a lot of goodwill and trust that has been established over time. She is very careful when she works in the communities to build trust so that she and others associated with Sightsavers can have the most influence and positive impact.

For many blind or visionally impaired people in remote villages in India, they become recluses, highly dependent on their families. This can lead to depression and even suicide, as well as the loss of a productive human being from the villages in which they live. Sightsavers takes on these challenges through regional programs like the Ganjam District Rehabilitation Project. These programs train people from these regions to help those with the plight of blindness, often resulting in remarkable transformations.

Hari is a good example of the above. He is a young man that had grown up feeling isolated from peers due to his disability. Then one day he met a woman from the Ganjam District Rehabilitation Project that totally changed his life. She taught him how to count money and helped him open a small shop with resources from this program. It took some compassionate outreach from one human being to another, offering a solution to his problem, to turn Hari’s situation around. Even though Hari still has sight issues, he is now a productive and social member of his community thanks to the outreach provided by Sightsavers.

Let’s all use the inspiration provided by Sightsavers and those they help to pay something forward in our own lives. Everyone has received help in some form at some point in their life. It’s important we remember that help, appreciate it, and pay it forward by doing what we can to help others.

In the corporate world, it is no longer enough to have a cool looking logo and a contagious jingle. Consumers of corporate products and services are increasingly making their buying decisions on how they personally perceive a company. Does the company align with their social values? Is the company motivated only by profit or does it also practice social responsibility? Does the company make a voluntary commitment to practice social responsibility beyond what is required by law? Does the company partner with charities to give something positive back to the world that goes beyond making money.

Sightsavers has been a pioneer in partnering with corporations and governmental entities to practice social responsibility around the globe. The non-profit also promotes equal opportunities for those with visual disabilities and other disabilities. By partnering with Sightsavers, a company can share in the goodwill they provide. It’s good for their branding, their social media engagement, and it makes the work environment a friendlier place.

Working in more than thirty countries, Sightsavers concentrate their efforts in areas where poverty and the lack of basic resources like antibiotics, surgery, and education substantially affects the health and happiness of those who live there. In other words, Sightsavers’ staff and volunteers work in regions of the world where there is tremendous need and where the resources of their corporate partners can have the most profound effect.

Often times, the leaders of a corporation, or a group of employees within a corporation, earnestly want to help their company practice social responsibility. However, even with these generous intentions, they may flounder a bit in knowing just how to go about this or how to have the biggest impact possible. This is where a partnership with Sightsavers is a marriage made in heaven. Sightsavers essentially gives these corporations a roadmap on how to practice social responsibility and how to have a truly life altering impact.

So, let’s look at some specific examples where Sightsavers has given corporations the opportunity to practice social responsibility.

Merck & Company, the world’s seventh largest pharmaceutical company in the world, has been donating free of charge an antibiotic called Mectizan (ivermectin) to treat river blindness in tropical Africa. For decades, these antibiotics have saved eyesight and restored dignity to those afflicted with this terrible but very preventable disease. Pfizer supplies Sightseers with Zithromax, another antibiotic used to fend off trachoma, free of charge. These corporate in kind donations to Sightsavers have saved the eyesight of thousands of people.

Sometimes, companies give their employees and customers a chance to offer donations to Sightsavers. For example, Emirates Airline and its passengers have been donating “Skywards Miles,” which can be used just like currency to purchase airplane tickets with the company. eBay is another good example. They gave people who purchased or sold items through their platform to make small donations to Sightsavers. In just one year, they collected sixty thousand dollars. Given how far Sightsavers stretches every dollar, this saved the eyesight of many deserving people.

In 2014, Sightsavers launched the very ambitious goal of raising £30 million to provide a million free cataract surgeries. This effort was dubbed, “A Million Miracles,” and it was a huge success by every definition of the word. Adults with cataracts can go completely blind if left untreated, but with surgery, their sight can be restored! For children, time is of the essence because cataracts can cause permanent damage if no surgery is performed. Optical Express was one of the partners in the “A Million Miracles” campaign. However, instead of just writing a check, they gave all of their employees an opportunity to make a donation equal to one hour of their salary.

Sometimes donations from corporations pass through to donations to other Sightsavers partners on the ground. For example, recently Sightsavers donated twenty-four motorcycles to the government of the Benue State of Nigeria for the purpose of getting much needed supplies to very remote regions. This included medical supplies to treat neglected Tropical Diseases.(NTDs) that are preventable with medication but often go untreated in these very poor, and so often neglected, regions of the world.

Social responsibility goes beyond simply writing a big check. It means getting involved in specific ways by volunteering time, gifting products, providing services for free or at a substantially reduced cost, and donating money specifically earmarked for a much needed humanitarian purpose. One of the best ways a corporation can become socially responsible is to team up with a charitable organization like Sightsavers. Some companies actually allow employees to volunteer their time to certain Sightsavers projects.

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Sightsavers has been forming strategic alliances with corporations long before it became popular to do so and long before “corporate social responsibility” was such a media buzzword! We thank Sightsavers for being such a trend setter in this realm. They have established partnerships with corporations who have become the model that other non-profits and companies follow. We know they will continue to be global leaders in fostering corporate responsibility.

There is a growing expectation for successful companies to also give back to the world. Some shareholders are even basing their stock buys on how socially impactful a company has been. On the other side of the coin, some socially responsible investors pull their investments out of companies who do not show corporate responsibility, or worse, do things that harm people and or the environment.

There are many benefits to companies who choose to partner with Sightsavers. Perhaps the greatest benefit of all is an invitation to visit one of Sightsavers’ projects the company is helping. Seeing firsthand the dramatic life altering impact that Sightsavers’ missions have on people and their loved ones is something that changes a person profoundly and forever. Anyone who witnesses these real life miracles will never be the same again. It’s almost as if their psyche is reprogrammed. And of course, they come back from these visits with pictures and stories to tell which always inspires others. In a way, these are gifts that never stop giving because so often when people actually witness a miracle, they pass this on in many ways throughout their lifetime.

While some companies may pursue charity partnerships purely for “PR purposes” there does seem to be a genuine shift in corporate culture as the younger generations enter the workforce and take on upper management positions. While we may never achieve the near utopian society envisioned by Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek, we are moving quickly to a point where most companies will be expected to show at least some degree of social responsibility. Thanks in large part to the efforts by charities like Sightsavers, these efforts can have very meaningful impact on people’s lives.

 

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