Eye health advocates bring focus back home

Unsure of what to expect on her first day of work for Unite For Sight, Ashley Campbell ’07 was more than mildly surprised to find 120 patients waiting for her care.

“I just thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing!’” said Campbell, who spent the summer volunteering in Thailand. “It was intimidating. One by one, we worked our way through the patients. I had a real sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.”

Founded at Yale by Jennifer Staple ’03 five years ago, Unite for Sight has become an organization with international reach that advocates eye health care and helps treat eye diseases in medically under-served areas of the world. Though the organization expanded to chapters at more than 90 schools, its founding chapter in the Elm City virtually disappeared due to dwindling participation. But this year, Unite for Sight has pledged to reestablish itself as a presence in New Haven.

Staple started Unite for Sight five years after working with glaucoma patients at Danbury Eye Physicians in Connecticut. While in the clinic, she saw the eye disease ravage patients — an experience she said made her want to do something to help. Beginning as an outreach group for the New Haven community, Unite for Sight started with only 35 volunteers. Along with coordinating eye screenings and education campaigns for the medically under-served population of New Haven, the group went out into the community and worked in public places like soup kitchens on the New Haven Green and at the New Haven Free Public Library.

Soon after its inception, Unite for Sight sought to expand its work and got in touch with other universities, promoting the formation of new chapters. Thanks to word of mouth, Staple said, chapters of Unite for Sight sprouted up in college campuses across the country.

“Staying within the United States was the initial plan,” Staple said.

But the group has grown beyond U.S. borders, now totaling more than 4,000 volunteers who work to improve eye health and to eliminate preventable blindness in 25 countries worldwide.

But at Yale, the group’s steam seemed to have run out until recently.

“I think when Jennifer Staple left, the group dwindled because of the lack of leadership,” Campbell said. “Now we’re trying to get it back together. There’s the need in New Haven more than ever.”

Under the leadership of Vinay Bachireddy ’06, the group has been reorganized and will once again be in operation on campus.

Yalies who have personally participated in one of Unite for Sight’s relief trips said they agree with the need to revitalize the Yale chapter. Hrvoje Ostric ’07 was part of a group that traveled to the Buduburam refugee camp while he was participating in Bulldogs in Ghana internship program this past summer.

“Ghana was amazing,” Ostric said. “It struck me how organized the people were without any resources … It should be brought back [at Yale] because I think a lot of the [Unite for Sight] teams abroad are lacking glasses and other supplies. Working at this level is a good start.”

Ostric said there was such a demand for help from Unite for Sight in Ghana that some people had to be turned away. But he said they still left grateful that Unite for Sight was there trying to help.

Staple said she thinks Unite for Sight’s return to Yale is important, considering that the organization has already helped arrange 1,000 vision restoring surgeries and has reached over 190,000 with what she called “valuable information.”

Alexandra Charrow ’07, who was also a member of Unite for Sight’s Buduburam group in Ghana, said she joined Unite for Sight because of the opportunity to go abroad and provide humanitarian services to the under-served.

“Being there, you witness the pain and suffering people go through,” Charrow said.

But Charrow said working on a smaller scale would be easier for the Yale chapter and could be better focused on the New Haven community, since the need for a local chapter is so great.

In response to this need, Unite for Sight will witness its rebirth at Yale tonight, as students convene to reestablish the chapter.

“It’s great and wonderful,” Staple said. “The leadership is full and strong.”

The Yale chapter is already planning ahead for its new life in the Elm City. It will be hosting the third annual International Health Conference in Linsly-Chittenden Hall this spring.

Yale students involved in the organization will have the chance to take part in Unite for Sight’s ongoing international relief efforts. But in the meantime, the Yale chapter will return to its roots and go out again into the New Haven community, picking up where the organization left off.

“It’s a tangible way of helping people in terms of health care and hands-on experience,” Campbell said. “It helps students get involved abroad and in their own community.”

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