Article Date: 10/1/2010

Conquering Poverty
reflections
THE HUMAN SIDE OF OPTOMETRY

Conquering Poverty

Mission trips inspired me to form a not-for-profit eyecare organization.

Jordan Kassalow, O.D., M.P.H.,
NEW YORK, NY

The Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime," made a big impact on me after traveling on eyecare mission trips.

Man on missions

As a first-year optometry student, I joined a Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH) International mission trip to Latin America. While I encountered many striking ocular conditions, what left the biggest impression on me was that one-third of patients simply needed non-prescription readymade reading glasses. I thought: "Couldn't this problem be solved by training the locals to dispense readymade readers?"

The VOSH experience inspired me to focus on community eye care. After graduation, I spent six months volunteering at India's Aravind Eye Care System — a large facility whose purpose is to eliminate needless blindness. My biggest lesson there: Yet again, dozens of patients simply needed non-prescription readymade reading glasses.

Soon thereafter, I completed a Fellowship in preventative ophthalmology and a Masters in Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. I spent the next eight years leading the Onchocerciasis (river blindness) Program for Helen Keller International in Africa. As was the case with my previous mission trips, uncorrected presbyopia was extremely prevalent here. Also, this experience was similar to my Latin America and India trips in that several of the people — regardless of their vision — were either under-employed or unemployed. And, many were women, who as the microcredit movement started to demonstrate, were the key to economic development in these areas.

Dr. Kassalow demonstrating a vision screening in India.

Providing tools

Observing these same problems on three continents, I created VisionSpring (www.visionspring.org), a not-for-profit social enterprise, which uses microfranchising to provide ready-made readers. The organization launched in 2002 in India.

Specifically, VisionSpring invites reputable nongovernmental organizations or corporations in the world's poorest, most remote communities to become their franchise partner and recruit local entrepreneurs — usually women — to sell VisionSpring-produced readers. (The readers are sourced in China with donated and earned resources. The entrepreneurs repay VisionSpring for the glasses upon their sale. Market research across numerous countries reveals people are willing to spend about 10% of their monthly income — $3.00-$5.00 — for readers.)

VisionSpring licenses its "Business in a Bag" model to these organizations or corporations. Entrepreneurs then undergo three days of basic training in eye care and business management. The result: The franchise partners receive a product that provides social and economic benefit to their populations, knowledge, skills and experience in Base of the Pyramid sales and marketing and an additional revenue stream for the partner and the entrepreneurs.

VisionSpring started with 18 women. Eight years later, it has 8,500 women selling readers in 10 countries. Collectively, they have sold more than 400,000 pairs of eyeglasses. Teach how to provide eye care, and you can provide vision for a lifetime. OM


DO YOU HAVE A MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE? DISCUSS YOUR STORY WITH JENNIFER KIRBY, SENIOR ASSOCIATE EDITOR OF OPTOMETRIC MANAGEMENT, AT (215) 628-6595, OR JEN.KIRBY@WOLTERSKLUWER.COM. OM OFFERS AN HONORARIUM FOR PUBLISHED SUBMISSIONS.

Optometric Management, Issue: October 2010