On Thursday January 22, Charlie MacCormack ’63, Executive in Residence at Middlebury College introduced Jennifer Staple-Clark, the keynote speaker and 2015 Vision Award Recipient. Jennifer was joined by Svea Closser, Assistant Professor of Sociology/Anthropology and and Sayre White ’15 and Hannah Blackburn ’17 students from GlobeMed chapter, for an engaging conversation on her amazing professional journey. After her freshman year at Yale, Jennifer, as part of a plan to eventually attend medical school, interned at an ophthalmologist’s office in her hometown of Newtown, Connecticut. She was stunned by how simple yet life-changing some of the ophthalmological procedures were. When she returned to school at the end of the summer, she founded Unite for Sight. She recruited 30 fellow students to go out and find people in the community who could benefit from the procedures that Jennifer had seen that past summer. Just months after deciding to expand Unite For Sight beyond Yale, 25 chapters opened on college campuses across the country. By the time Jennifer graduated, Unite For Sight had helped over 1,000 people receive treatment.
Fifteen years later, United for Sight has treated 1.9 million people around the world. They currently work in Ghana, Honduras, and India. Jennifer explained that Unite For Sight strives to find “locally-developed and locally-responsible solutions which focus on outcomes.” Too many organizations, Jennifer elaborated, focus on outputs instead of outcomes. She told the story of one of Unite For Sight’s patients in Honduras. This man had previously received a cataracts surgery from a medical missionary team, but he developed an infection after the operation. The medical mission, though, had already left, and there was no way to receive treatment. The infection ultimately robbed him of vision in his left eye. But the organization that sponsored the medical mission could count this man in the number of operations the team had conducted, although the outcome of the surgery was not successful. The example of this man shows that there can be a large difference between output and outcomes.
Much of Unite for Sight’s work focuses on treating cataracts, a condition in which the lens in the eye becomes cloudy resulting in worsened eyesight. Cataracts can be treated with a 5 to 15 minute surgery, and in the developed world virtually no one is seriously afflicted by the condition. Across the developing world, however, cataracts is common, leaving some people with mere light perception. In some places, cataracts is so common that people believe that when your hair goes gray, your eyes go gray.
In the countries where they work, Unite For Sight assists and supports local doctors who provide eye care. This requires close collaboration with the doctors and other medical staff to tailor solutions to local contexts. As Jennifer says, “From the start we asked, ‘How can we help you?’ [because] local doctors really understand what’s going on.” This humble approach has yielded tremendous results. Clinics partnered with Unite For Sight conduct almost 50 percent of all cataract surgeries in Ghana, a country of 27 million people.
When asked about being a leader, Jennifer responded “If you are very passionate about something, you will make others similarly passionate.” From the days of leading those first 30 students at Yale, to now leading a global organization, Jennifer has inspired countless others along way. On Thursday night, she inspired an entire audience.
For more information about Unite For Sight and their incredible student internship programs visit: http://www.uniteforsight.org/.
Here is the full video of Jennifer’s talk: