Where They Are Now

Eye opening

A global program of eye care.

Andreea Angelescu/ Corbis

Andreea Angelescu/ Corbis

Social entrepreneur Jennifer Staple-Clark ’03 runs the international nonprofit Unite for Sight from an office in downtown New Haven. View full image

Jennifer Staple-Clark ’03 founded Unite for Sight out of her dorm room in Timothy Dwight College in 2000. Still headquartered in New Haven, her organization has now delivered eye care to more than a million people in need throughout the world. Unite for Sight also sponsors an annual Global Health and Innovation Conference that draws 2,200 people from 55 countries to New Haven.

Y: So this all started when you were working for your childhood ophthalmologist?

S-C: Between my freshman and sophomore years, I worked in a doctor’s office, assisting with glaucoma research. With glaucoma, there’s a very gradual, permanent, and irreversible blindness—it needs to be picked up by a doctor early on. I was interacting with a lot of glaucoma patients, and many said they wished they’d been to the eye doctor before they lost their sight. There are programs where people can get an exam by an eye doctor without having health insurance, but many people aren’t aware of them. Unite for Sight started in the fall of 2000 by going to the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen and the New Haven public library to inform people about the importance of going to the eye doctor regularly.

Y: And it grew from there.

S-C: As I was graduating I wondered if this model could work well in other universities. In the summer of 2003 we began expanding, and to my delight and surprise, there were 25 chapters by the end of the summer, and it kept increasing very rapidly. Then we began receiving inquiries internationally.

Y: What are the dimensions of Unite for Sight now?

S-C: We’re almost at 1.4 million patients who’ve received care through Unite for Sight programs, including from our local partner eye clinics in Ghana, India, and Honduras. That includes more than 53,000 sight-restoring surgeries for patients living in poverty. Many of them are not aware that if they have a cataract, their sight can be restored. They think that as their hair goes grey, their eyes go grey, and that nothing can be done. But a 15-minute surgery by an ophthalmologist restores their sight.

Y: Is there sometimes resistance to proper medical treatment in rural villages?

S-C: Some people have fear associated with the surgery. A lot of times, the bravest people will come out for the outreach, and then the bravest of them will opt to proceed with cataract surgery. They go back and tell their story to other community members. It might take two or three years for people to become comfortable, and for word of mouth to spread within a community.

Y: Anne Fadiman’s book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down documents how a disaster can result when Western medicine is shoved down the throat of another culture. How do you avoid that trap?

S-C: This is specifically why we developed partnerships with local doctors. All of our clinic partners in Ghana grew up in villages—they grew up in poverty, and then became doctors. They understand the local community members.

Y: So Unite for Sight provides the funding for this care?

S-C: Instead of the patients being billed—since they’re living usually on less than $1 a day and wouldn’t be able to afford a $100 surgery—the clinic bills Unite for Sight. We fund all the surgical costs, and we also fund clinics to hire additional outreach staff that can devote time to going into the villages.

Y: What’s one story you can tell from the field?

S-C: A doctor in Ghana named Ernest Awiti wrote to us about a boy named Emmanuel who had done very poorly in school and kept being held back. It turned out he had bilateral cataracts—he was essentially blind. He was examined and diagnosed by Ernest, and two weeks later he had cataract surgery funded by Unite for Sight, and he had his sight entirely restored. When Ernest returned the following month, Emmanuel said he was so excited to return to school, to show that he is a very good student.  

1 comment

    KOUYA NEAN, 12:35pm October 11 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Dear Jennifer Staple-Clark,
    It took me a long time of research about UNIT of SIGHT .How to get your contact and let you know I am a senior ophthalmologist living in Cote d'ivoire a boarder country of ghana.I read that you have set up a program of eye care in this country.I founded with some physicians an NGO named Light First .Our website is lightfirst.org .I would like to learn about the strategies of sreening the people very poor suffering from glaucoma .By the way I appreciated what your organization is doing in Ghana.Beyond the cataract in childhood , I would like to tell you there are some cases of congenital glaucoma .If I receive a reply from you I will send you some pictures of congenital glaucoma cases.
    I thank you
    I am looking forward to reading you
    Best regards
    Dr NEAN

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