Students help launch eye care center in Liberia
The New Sight Eye Center plans to reduce preventable blindness and visual impairment around the nation
March 11, 2012, 8:28 pm · Updated March 12, 2012, 11:35 pm·
Two graduate students at Penn are looking to use their interest in medicine to improve eye care in Liberia.
Recently, Jessica DiVanno and Jake Graffe — both pre-med students in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies — helped launch the “New Sight Eye Center.”
The center began operating a few weeks ago in Liberia with the mission of reducing preventable blindness and visual impairment in rural and urban communities.
DiVanno and Graffe’s inspiration for the center came from Karen King, a volunteer with Unite for Sight — a nonprofit global health organization — who spearheaded the development of the eye care facility.
“We had a dream that we wanted to open an eye clinic because of the great demand that we saw,” King said.
DiVanno and Graffe believe that all people in Liberia deserve to be educated about eye disease prevention and that nobody should have to suffer because of reduced access to resources.
However, most of the population in Liberia faces challenges because of limitations to education and health care.
An estimated 80 percent of cases that lead to blindness are treatable, yet many of these cases go untreated due to a lack of access to necessary resources, DiVanno explained.
“The problem is that people are using home remedies, they’re using methods that actually make their conditions worse, so there’s an inter-cultural barrier that we have to overcome as well,” DiVanno said.
In establishing the clinic, DiVanno and Graffe hope to improve the lives of disadvantaged individuals by providing free eye care health services that would otherwise not be available to them.
“If people can’t see, then they can’t farm, resulting in a slim chance of survival,” King said.
According to Graffe, Liberians have had a difficult time rebuilding their lives since the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003.
“Many of them are afflicted with cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and other eye diseases for which they could not acquire any care,” Graffe said.
As the clinic grows over the next few months, it will recruit more eye care professionals to treat people — an initiative that will call for more financial support.
“There aren’t many qualified eye care specialists in the country, so one of our principal goals is to try get as many eye professionals to work in the clinic,” Graffe said.
“As of right now, we’re looking for donations that will contribute to the growth of the center,” DiVanno added.
DiVanno and Graffe’s fundraising plan is to donate one hour of community service for every $100 in donations they receive. They hope to spread their message and get the community involved in as many ways as possible.
The ultimate goal is for the center to be approved as an official Unite for Sight clinic. If this happens, New Sight Eye Center will become a permanent clinic that will receive full funding from Unite for Sight, they explained.
“We have to prove that the clinic can be financially sustainable, that there are sufficient physical resources and that we have the required optometric expertise to keep it running,” Graffe said.
This summer, DiVanno and Graffe plan to travel to the New Sight Eye Center — along with King and other volunteers — to continue their efforts. They will be blogging about their adventures on a recently created website.
“Now that everything is all coming together, we are really going to have an impact in Liberia,” King said.