By: John Banker Issue: Conscious Capitalism Section: Collaborator Profile
Helping Rural Jamaicans See
Last fall, at the Grange Kendall Clinic in rural Hanover Jamaica, a young student received a pair of reading glasses. At only a few dollars, they would have been an insignificant expense to most Americans. For her parents the cost of the glasses and a visit to an eye care specialist would have been more than the cost of several days food for the whole family. As she left the clinic sporting her new glasses, she gave Dr. Cross, the founder of the Eye Health Institute (EHI), a big hug of thanks and gleefully headed back to her classroom where she could now see the blackboard. Meanwhile in the coastal town of Lucea, a team of EHI doctors and volunteers was wrapping up three days of cataract surgeries. One of the 20 patients, a weathered grandmother had just received her sight again after many years of progressive vision loss. As she and her family headed back to their mountain home, she turned to EHI surgeon Dr. Peter Andrews and said, “Thanks to you, I can read my Bible again.” That surgery, which was a modest donation from families in the U.S., would have cost more than her annual income and would have required her to travel to Kingston, over 100 miles away. This is only a glimpse of the mission that is performed by the Eye Health Institute.
The Eye Health Institute is a fledgling non-profit organization based in Boulder, Colorado. The EHI mission is to provide comprehensive, quality eye care to the financially disadvantaged and underserved children and families in the rural regions of Jamaica.
The Eye Health Institute was formed by Dr. Richard Cross after seeing the need for vision care on a medical mission to Jamaica. In 1996, the Congregational Church of Longmont invited him to join their eye care team on a mission. Being that Dr. Cross’s mother was Jamaican, he found a special need to help. The eye care team consisted of two optometrists and two opticians. They were overwhelmed by the large number of people waiting in line all day for the chance to improve their vision. While in Jamaica they examined over 100 people each day and regretted that many more had to be turned away. In comparison, at his private practice in Boulder, Richard sees 10 to 20 patients each day. Overwhelmed by the need, he returned the following year to help more people. During this second mission, a young woman in Broughton who had been legally blind for over ten years burst into tears when she was given glasses. She had not seen her mother’s face since she had been a small child. That experience and others inspired the doctors with the vision of a volunteer clinic to serve people in Jamaica’s rural areas.
With the help of numerous volunteers including doctors and less skilled helpers, EHI has returned to the island annually for more than ten years. Their vision was to connect with the people who had no access or money to see an eye care provider. More than 4,000 patients have been examined since that small beginning in 1996. The Eye Health Institute remains dedicated to helping Jamaicans maintain good vision and healthy eyes.
In support of EHI, the Jamaican Ministry of Health has provided clinic space in the Grange-Kendall medical facility in Hanover. By 2006, EHI had accumulated adequate used and reconditioned equipment to set up an examination lane at the clinic. Since then, Grange-Kendall has been the home base for bi-annual EHI Jamaican missions. But, like many other of the modern conveniences that are lacking in the area, transport to get the elderly and needy to the clinic is a challenge. During the November missions the EHI volunteer teams and skilled doctors supported by dedicated helpers, have set up mobile clinics at churches and schools. During the 2008 mission, the mobile teams examined nearly 1,000 children and adults during a very busy week. While the missions have focused on the Hanover and Westmoreland parishes of western Jamaica, the 2009 mission will include schools and churches in the Cornwall region in the northeast.
The need for optometric care in Jamaica is tremendous. According to an article in the Optometry and Vision Science magazine in 2000, only about 468,000 individuals of the 2.5 million people in Jamaica receive an eye examination every three years and approximately 1.25 million people have never received an eye examination. According to that article, over half of the population never sees an eye doctor during their lifetime. In 1996 alone, according to the Daily Gleaner, a Jamaican newspaper, there were 20,000 cases of blindness in Jamaica.
After careful review of the island’s resources, EHI found that there were only eight eye care professionals on the island and all were located in the larger cities. The Gleaner article noted that only about 700,000 Jamaicans live in close proximity to these metropolitan areas. This leaves 1,800,000 people living in the rural isolated areas, which generally have limited transport and have no local access to eye care services.
Additionally, an August 2001 article in the Gleaner cited the recent increase in cataracts on the island. Persons who are diabetic are at a higher risk of developing cataracts. According to the article, diabetes is now an epidemic in Jamaica affecting more than 3,000 people. It is predicted that at least 450,000 persons will be affected by the disease within a decade.
Can you imagine having only eight eye care professionals for over 2,500,000 people? Further, that these people are only a few hundred miles from the most generous, most wealthy nation in the world?
Fortunately, numerous patients lives have been greatly improved by the vision care and eyeglasses provided by EHI volunteers.
numerous patients lives have been greatly improved by the vision care and eyeglasses provided by EHI volunteers.
Women who had lost the ability to sew have been given the opportunity to return to work as seamstresses simply by receiving reading glasses. Church going patients were thrilled by the fact that they could once again do their daily Bible studies. A young boy, thought to be learning disabled and failing in school, was found to be highly near-sighted. Glasses allowed him to participate in classroom activities and resume learning alongside his fellow classmates. Helping young people like him to become educated productive adults is a critical part of the EHI vision. I am particularly keen on this point. I began wearing glasses at age 7 to correct severe nearsightedness and without the eye care help that was readily available to me, I would likely have never finished high school, much less have succeeded as an international entrepreneur.
EHI’s long term vision is to help provide a means by which the Jamaicans can help their fellow Jamaicans. The current missions are a starting point on a long road. EHI is working with the local governments and local organizations including Lions Clubs and Kiwanis Clubs to further this vision.
Much of what EHI is doing today can eventually be done locally with leadership, encouragement, financial support, and the focused technical support of eye care professionals.
Although it has grown from a small group of four volunteers in the late 1990’s to a team of over 30 volunteers in November 2008, EHI remains a very small organization. EHI’s total budget in 2009 was slightly over $50,000. EHI is primarily funded by a supporting team of friends and a small group of corporate donors. “Reggae on the Creek,” an annual benefit concert in Boulder, has increased public awareness of the need and the work of EHI. Its profits have provided funds to further the EHI mission.
Social awareness is certainly an important part of corporate culture and legacy today. Several local companies include EHI in their social awareness programs.
Paul Hester, owner of Rock Steady Landscaping of Boulder, has been an active volunteer and strong supporter of EHI throughout the decade. Paul and his family have poured unlimited energy toward the success of “Reggae on the Creek.” After coming to Boulder from his native Jamaica, Paul built a solid reputation as a landscaping manager for the Boulder Downtown Mall. He has built Rock Steady on this foundation. Today, he and his wife Mary spend most of their time giving back. EHI receives strong support from Rock Steady Landscaping and continues to be a major part of Paul’s world.
Dynamic Materials Corp. (DMC), a Boulder based manufacturing company, is another of EHI’s major corporate sponsors. DMC is a worldwide company with approximately 400 employees that specializes in the explosion metalworking industry. With a corporate office across the street from Dr. Cross’s private practice, many of the DMC corporate staff rely on him for eye care. Through this personal relationship, the DMC team has become an increasingly active supporter of EHI. In recent years DMC has been an annual Gold sponsor of the “Reggae on the Creek” event. Applying its skills and relations in international transport, DMC has taken responsibility to assure that the delicate EHI equipment is successfully moved to Jamaica. DMC employees have handled the packaging and shipping logistics while DMC has covered the costs.
DMC volunteers have also worked with the surgery teams and the eye-care screening teams in the schools and churches. Jose Olivas, DMC’s Sales Director, worked with the cataract surgery team in 2008. He had undergone cataract surgery a year earlier and was fully aware of the benefits. His daily skills are selling metal, not doing surgeries, but the doctor needed workers too and Jose was a great worker. Jose said it was an unbelievable opportunity to give back.
As noted by DMC President and CEO, Yvon Cariou, “Corporate social responsibility is an ingrained part of the DMC culture. DMC facilities in France, Germany, Sweden, and Pennsylvania actively contribute and provide volunteer support to local charities.”
Many other corporate sponsors have helped to build EHI over the years. Major sponsors of the 2009 "Reggae on the Creek" event include a number of smaller local companies: Insight Lasik, Boulder Vision Associates, Webster Appraisal Services, Rock N’ Robbins, Way to Grow, and Grimes Real Estate Services, to mention a few. But not all are small and local. JAS Forwarding Worldwide, an international transport and logistics company, is a significant corporate sponsor.
Through the efforts of volunteers, corporate sponsors, the generosity of the Boulder community and many friends across the country, EHI continues to provide the eye care desperately needed in rural Jamaica.
The 2009 “Reggae on the Creek” event was held on August 28 at the Millennium Harvest House in Boulder. To learn more about the EHI project and missions while having fun, visit www.eyehealthinstitute.org.
John Banker is an EHI Board Member and Vice President of Customers and Technology at DMC in Boulder, Colorado.