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SCIENCE HERO:
JENNIFER STAPLE:
UNITE FOR SIGHT
by Claudia Hudson

Image: The Newton Bee/Jennifer Staple
As a 19-year-old college sophomore, Jennifer Staple took on a summer work position that would ultimately blossom into her life’s mission.

While working in 2000 as a clinical researcher of glaucoma in the office of her childhood ophthalmologist in New Haven, Connecticut, the Yale University pre-med student was shocked to see so many cases of blindness which could have been prevented.

Witnessing the scores of low-income and homeless patients whose glaucoma had progressed into blindness, she formulated two main objectives – the importance of educating people about eye disease, and of assisting the less-fortunate in obtaining affordable or free medical eye care.

The neglect of eye diseases often causes blindness that could have otherwise been corrected -- in some cases, easily so – as in the case of glaucoma, a gradual eye disease preventable in some cases with little more than medicated eye drops. Over and over she would hear the regret of patients who wished they had visited an eye doctor sooner. Likewise, Jennifer felt compelled to help.


"Jennifer Staple examines a patient last summer at an eye clinic camp in India."(image:Stanford Report)

She began by recruiting fellow Yale students to join her in fighting blindness amongst New Haven’s disadvantaged, primarily the homeless. Equipped with eye charts and educational materials, she and approximately 35 volunteers would visit libraries, soup kitchens, schools, and community centers, trying to foster awareness, educate the public, and lead the needy towards low-cost care.

She dubbed her endeavor Unite for Sight and within a few years, other college campuses throughout the U.S. began opening sister branches. The concept was simple – help Americans learn about what actions they can take to improve their eye health, provide free community vision screenings, and put the needy in connection with low-cost or free eye care.

Unite for Sight volunteer in Zambia
Today her organization has mushroomed into a worldwide staff of volunteers who help both educate and inform the public about eye issues, and restore sight to the needy.

Currently a second-year Stanford medical student, Jennifer coordinates Unite for Sight’s 4000-some volunteers. Her organization is currently present in 25 countries, has 90 chapters, has provided services to 400,000 low-income patients, distributed over 200,000 pairs of eyeglasses, and has sponsored sight-restoration surgeries to over 6,000 patients, and growing.

International clinics and organizations can partner with Unite For Sight through an online application process. By sending local and international volunteers to underserved clinics, some of which are so small that only one optometrist or eye nurse facilitates them, Unite for Sight expands the fight against blindness. As a team, the volunteers go into the villages and screen people, in some cases, several hundred a day, identifying those who need eye care and helping facilitate it.

Unite for Sight volunteer Alyssa Titus in Orissa, India
In 2005 Unite for Sight expanded beyond eye care, launching a micro-enterprise initiative for women at the Buduburam refugee settlement in Ghana, to give refugees a source of income, while simultaneously fundraising for the eye care operation there. The women create jewelry and eyeglass cases which Unite for Sight sells on the Internet and at university campuses. The organization also works with a community-based group in El Salvador, and hope to continue expanding.

Jennifer also holds international health conferences through Unite for Sight. 2007's conference dubbed "An Energizing Weekend of Ideas and Exchange of Best Practices to Achieve Global Goals and to Make a Difference" was held in Palo Alto, California, and hosted over 1500 people and 300 renowned speakers, interested in topics of global health, medicine, international development, microfinance, entrepreneurship, eye care, bioethics, international service, philanthropy, and more.

Unite for Sight volunteer Walid Mangal in Erode, India
Her devotion and passion to her mission is clear -- in between classes and studying, she volunteers more than 40 hours a week to it, amongst other things, responding to about 3000 emails a month. Previously she had already postponed medical school for two years while starting up the endeavor, but now, upon graduating from medical school as an ophthalmologist she plans to continue in her crusade against blindness.

Reports from volunteers and from patients whose sight has been restored keep her continuously excited for the project, despite the long work-hours she endures.

Last summer she visited one of Unite for Sight’s international clinics for the first time – in the rural village of Chennai, India -- and seeing the emotional reaction of patients who could finally see once again – and some for the first time – made her further realize the impact of her visionary project.

Unite for sight at Dr. Schoff's Charity Eye Hospital in New Delhi, India
The project is particularly poignant in impoverished rural areas as there, many patients are unaware that their blindness is correctable, or that their impending blindness is preventable and curable. Many have lost hope and have succumbed to a life of further poverty and despair until hearing the message of Unite for Sight volunteers. Beyond restoring eye sight, the project restores hope. It allows villagers to see their village, some for the first time in years, to see their family and loved ones, and to regain so much of what they felt was lost forever.

As for Jennifer, it all remains a little difficult to believe.

A project that was once a one-woman team has blossomed into a worldwide initiative in only a matter of years, and has transformed what was once a potential career into a life-long mission and philanthropic passion.


Written by Claudia Hudson
Last changed on: 4/8/2014 3:14:03 PM

Unite for Sight: is a non-profit organization that empowers communities worldwide to improve eye health and eliminate preventable blindness. Local and visiting volunteers work with partner eye clinics to provide eye care in communities without previous access...

2007 BR!CK Award Winner: Jennifer Staple (from DoSomething.org). Learn more about Jennifer and Unite for Sight. Includes an in-depth interview.

Stanford medical student is visionary behind global fight against blindness (from the Stanford School of Medicine and Stanford News)

 

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