Take a look and feast your eyes on the world around you. Did you notice all the vibrant colors? Now, close your eyes, count to five, and open again. What did you see? Darkness? Maybe a few geometric grayish shapes swirling in and out of all that black? Did you know that for an estimated 39 million people in the world, that’s what they would see if they were looking? To another 217 million, the vibrant colors are faded and the words are just blurred lines. If left untreated, the majority of that 217 million will soon forget how beautiful the world is because the colors and light will be lost to them due to unnecessary blindness.
What would you say if I told you that over 80 percent of blindness could be cured? I don’t know about you, but I was pretty surprised by that number. That’s a lot of people who should never lose sight of the world around them. Why are so many in the dark? Great question!
According to the World Health Organization, the leading cause of blindness around the world is untreated cataracts followed by uncorrected refractive errors. According to CharityVision, a nonprofit based in Provo, more than 90 percent of those suffering from needless blindness live in developing areas like Latin America, SubSaharan Africa, and Southeast Asia. Blindness in these areas can lead to begging, extreme poverty, abandonment, and even death. Think about this while reading: every five seconds someone goes blind, and every minute a child goes blind. Nearly all blind children in developing countries drop out of school, and half of all blind children die within two years. Pretty bleak reading, but don’t worry. We’re going to lighten this article up a bit with CharityVision. The organization has been doing precisely that for 30 years—fighting needless blindness and bringing people back into the light.
Partnership, Entrepreneurship, and Sustainability
It all began in 1963 when Dr. William Jackson, fresh out of medical school, heeded a call to go to Algeria, along with his expectant wife, to help coordinate some charity programs. They loved it and brought home an awesome souvenir. Douglas Jackson, CEO of CharityVision, was born on that first six-month assignment to Algeria. He spent his childhood doing charity work alongside his family with Dr. Jackson’s charity, Deseret International Foundation, which would later become CharityVision International.
I had the fabulous opportunity to speak with Doug and learn more about CharityVision, and I’ve got to tell you—I think you’re going to really like their model. It’s not one you usually associate with international nonprofit (501C-3) organizations. CharityVision’s model is one of partnership, entrepreneurship, and sustainability. They focus on empowering local doctors by giving them the tools—literally—to solve unique issues specific to their communities. Instead of bringing teams in to perform procedures and surgeries, they use local doctors who are already there. In Doug’s words, “They know the language. They know the pathology. They know the culture. They’ll be here tomorrow. They’ll be here in a month when there’s a complication or an infection. Almost immediately, we found that these doctors were thrilled! They love doing charity work. They love helping the poor.” Keeping with their same philosophy of the past 30 years, CharityVision goes into communities and finds optometrists and ophthalmologists and helps set them up in their own practices by providing the infrastructure, equipment, and supplies they need to be successful. In return, the doctors provide charity work two days a week. In most cases, these practices are the only ones within the community.
CharityVision also goes into universities and provides them with the tools to help the poorest of the poor who are looking for free or very inexpensive medical help. “The problem with universities is that you have willing hands that want to do surgery, you have willing patients who need the procedures, and 99 percent of the time nothing gets done because nobody can buy the supplies,” Doug explains. “The patient has no money, the university has no money, and a lot of their equipment is broken. . . . For us, it’s a match made in heaven.” CharityVision provides the universities with working equipment and supplies to care for the hundreds of patients waiting to be seen.
Working with CharityVision provides residents the opportunity to receive better training and experience. For example, Doug stated that a few years ago the average resident in Indonesia was performing around seven to eight surgeries per year. CharityVision came in, and that number jumped to around 220. By partnering with CharityVision, everyone wins—the universities are able to help more people, their residency programs are dramatically improved, they have the ability to get and maintain good equipment and supplies, and the residents develop a relationship with an international organization that can help them even after they graduate. Many of the residents go on to partner with CharityVision, setting up their own practices, performing surgeries and procedures, and doing charity work.
Passing Along the Savings
Douglas Jackson became CEO in 2001 running CharityVision with “just me, myself, and I in my office at home” until a few years ago. Now, CharityVision has a board and team that spreads the duty and takes turns traveling to the 25+ countries that they currently have partnerships in. CharityVision’s president is Josh Romney. Doug and Josh were introduced to each other by one of their donors and after talking for a while, Josh expressed his desire to be involved. He told Doug, “I am blessed with this name that people will stop and listen to. I would love to tell your story.” And so he does. In addition to other tasks, Josh goes out and shares their unique model of creating sustainable partnerships and programs that can pay for and support themselves with potential donors.
One of the things I’ve loved learning about CharityVision (and there are many) is that they are constantly checking in and visiting their partners, talking with them, finding out what they’re doing and where they are, and asking questions. If there are problems with equipment, they fix it. If supply cupboards are looking sparse, they fill them. Need something custom made? They’re on it.
Because CharityVision is able to order mass quantities of supplies, equipment, and glasses, they are able to get them for “dirt cheap.” In most cases, there is not a market for medical equipment in these countries, so it becomes a huge hurdle for many clinics, hospitals, and universities. By partnering with CharityVision, they are able to have good quality equipment and the latest technology. This model makes for a win-win situation. As Doug says, “It makes charity a little cheaper for us, and it makes the practice a little more profitable. In any practice we are involved with, you will see all the profits go to sustain all the work they are doing within their community. When we go in and work with a partner, it becomes a sustainable adventure.”
Combining his love of charity and entrepreneurial skills, Doug has helped CharityVision cut their costs per surgery by 75 percent. It costs just $25 for one cataract surgery ($50 for both eyes) performed by a local CharityVision doctor. Surgery numbers have jumped from 6,500 to 65,000 annually, and those numbers represent 65,000 people who get their lives back—fathers who couldn’t work, mothers who couldn’t take care of their families, children who couldn’t go to school, who now can see the light at the end of the dark tunnel. They have hope again. They have a future.
Leveraging Donation Dollars
CharityVision has developed their own internal revenue generating vehicle that pays their overhead, and 100 percent of all donations to CharityVision go where they need to go. Doug said it best:
“We leverage dollars like nobody’s business. We leverage every dollar to about one hundred dollars. We take $25 and do $2,500 worth of service. But it’s because of our model—we have a model that just lends itself to efficiency. We’re outside of the box thinkers. We’re entrepreneurs. We’ve never followed what everyone else is doing. We’ve always just done it our own way, and it’s worked out for us.”
It has worked. It is working, and not just in underdeveloped countries but in the United States as well. Understanding that in the States there’s too much bureaucracy, liability, and insurance issues in order to just do pre-surgery, let alone surgeries, but wanting to help those in our own country too, CharityVision figured out a way. A few years ago, they started doing school screenings. They talk with the schools in Salt Lake, Utah, Alpine, and Nebo districts to find out which kids failed the vision tests, and then they bus them to a huge clinic in Provo. The clinic dedicates four days each year to CharityVision. They bring in eight optometrists and an ophthalmologist. They have eight rooms going at one time. Everybody is volunteering, and they bring in some edgers so they are making the glasses as they go. Before the kids get back on the bus to return to school, 75 percent have glasses on their faces. The more difficult prescriptions need to be ordered and are usually delivered by the following week. CharityVision also does something similar in Los Angeles, California and would love to expand into other states as funds allow.
Striving to Do More
When I asked Doug what their biggest challenge was, he responded, “I hate to say it because it’s so predictable, but when we come back from a country, I don’t want to say it’s anger, but it’s frustration because we could be doing so much more. What we do is so cheap. We could be making such a bigger difference because there’s so much work to be done. There are billions of people in the world who don’t have access to eye care, who don’t have access to glasses. I mean, that’s just ridiculous.
He continues, “Last year, we had a request for about 20,000 surgeries that we couldn’t do because we didn’t have the funds. That’s 20,000 people. We could be more prolific. It just comes down to donors. We need some corporations. We need people who just know who we are and want to give to us. That’s the biggest challenge. How do you get people to realize that there’s a need out there? We can tackle this. We could put this one to rest if we just had people who knew that there are millions and millions of people out there who are walking around blind, not able to go to school, not able to take care of their families, not able to see their kids—and it’s absolutely unnecessary. So it’s just that creation of awareness and hopefully drumming up more funds. We could do a quarter of a million surgeries very easily if we just had the funding.”
The more I spoke with Doug the more I wanted to shout from the mountain top, “Let’s do it! Let’s end needless blindness!” While playing that out in my head, a thought occurred to me: CharityVision isn’t just about vision. Yes, ending needless blindness is the end goal, but in their quest to bring people out of the dark, they are providing entire countries with the ability to thrive and move forward. They are helping those in their residencies get better training and experience. They are helping doctors set up practices without the worry of being able to sustain them. Those practices offer jobs to locals, and locals are able to develop patient, doctor, and employee relationships that, without CharityVision’s help, would not have happened. CharityVision is bringing underdeveloped countries into the light.
As a writer, I tell stories. As the mother of a child who knows what it is to be blind, who has watched their face light up as the world around them comes into focus, enlarged through modern technology, I ask myself: How can I share CharityVision’s story? How can I create awareness?
Let’s get CharityVision on the radar and see if we can generate some great corporate partnerships. Their home base is right here on Silicone Slopes. That’s right, they’re where the tech world is happening. Using current technology and finding ways to create new technology to end needless blindness sounds like a match made in heaven to me. Their entrepreneurial model of creating businesses, opportunities, and jobs, seems like a perfect way for charity and technology to merge and create new stories.
Until then, here are a few great ones to tide you over:
A grandmother brought her granddaughter in for cataract surgery. When the surgery was finished, she turned to Doug and asked, “What about my eye?” This 80-year-old woman had spent her life feeling like she looked funny because she had a lazy eye. CharityVision restored the granddaughter’s sight and the grandmother’s self-confidence.
A teenager wrote CharityVision: “I was contemplating suicide. I was thinking about how I was going to end my life as my world was going black and I was slowly going blind. Then I heard about what you guys did, and I went and got my eyes fixed.”
A child was teased for years because their eyes were crossed. Then they received a procedure to straighten them, and with a sigh of relief, the parent said, “I always knew they were beautiful. Nnow the rest of the world can see it too.”
Another child, a little girl named Betty in Haiti, was taken out of school and out of society because she was needed to take care of her blind grandmother and auntie. After they both received cataract surgery, a picture of the three of them was snapped. Betty sits in the middle of her grandmother and auntie—all three with huge grins. The doctor said, “I don’t know who is more excited, her or them.” Betty can now go back to school. Betty can go outside and play and be a little girl.
CharityVision changes lives. They restore color and light to those who are needlessly blind, and when that happens they exclaim, “The world is beautiful! I remember the color! I remember the light!”
Visit charityvision.org to learn more.
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