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As she groped her way around the floor of a house in Kanpur, India, swishing the wet mop from side to side, missing a spot here and accidently spreading a spill there, Channo had little idea that her impending blindness could be halted in its tracks, stopped from plunging her into total darkness. She was the main breadwinner for her family. While her husband spent his salary in hooch, she cleaned houses to feed, clothe and raise her four young children. Blind, she and her children would quietly slip below the poverty line, forever becoming a statistic in government records. A cataract surgery, at a cost of thirty dollars, could halt the impending doom.

Meanwhile at Sankara Eye Foundation’s (SEF) dandia fundraiser at the Santa Clara Convention Center in California, Alkesh Chaudhary’s seven-colored lehenga ballooned as she twirled to the beat of Preetysha’s lyrical voice. The tiny mirrors on her skirt reflected the throbbing bodies of six thousand SF Bay Area residents as they clicked their sticks and rhythmically swung their feet. Their festive energy would turn the lights on in a hospital close to where Channo cleans houses.

Sankara’s vision 20/20 is to establish twenty hospitals across India by the year 2020, and thereby provide free eye care to a million people every year. Half a million would be surgical procedures and the other half a million would be glass corrections, lasers and medical management.

“An anonymous donor has pledged a million dollars,” rang out the voice from the stage. It belonged to Anil Lal, a SF Bay Area entrepreneur and the first “Partner-in-Service” for a Sankara Eye Hospital. By the end of six years Sankara Eye Foundation plans to have eleven new hospitals. Next stop Jodhpur, Indore, Chhattisgarh and Bihar/Orissa.

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Six thousand dandia dancers rocked in a rhythmic trance, their dazzling Indian dresses shimmering with excitement. “It’s a people movement,” says Seema Handu who rings in the festive season every year with the SEF Dandia. “Unlike other non-profits in the Bay Area that were started by wealthy individuals, this charity was started by volunteers and had no initial godfather,” says Anil.

It is an organization started in the living room by three committed volunteers and retains the character of a people’s movement. Over thousand volunteers service the fifty thousand plus SEF donors with meticulous attention to detail.  The grass roots organization is flat where any volunteer can propose, take the lead and run with a project and it is seen as a collective achievement.

“Back in 2000, our volunteer Rajiv Chamraj, who had just completed his executive MBA from MIT proposed “Vision 20/20 by 2020,” meaning perfect vision for all by the year 2020. I thought how is it possible for us to achieve this? Swami Vivekananda says every individual is potentially divine and can do anything and everything. Any limitations are only in the mind.  Think big. So SEF put it’s weight behind it’s volunteer’s vision,” says Murali Krishnamurthy, Chief Executive of SEF.

The entire organization moved as a behemoth behind that vision. Anil Lal requested guests at both his sons’ weddings to give the newlyweds “blessings, not blenders.” They donated to SEF to open a ward in Anil’s children’s names.

In the delivery of its vision it became imperative for SEF to manage the use of funds in an efficient manner. Cost of building a hospital, not including the cost of the land, is four to five million dollars. Once the capital expenditure is incurred, it is imperative that the hospital become self-sufficient and run on it’s own steam. By following the eighty-twenty rule, within five years a hospital is able to bear all recurring expenditures. For every two paying patients, eight patients are treated free.

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“By having your surgeries at Sankara Eye Foundation, apart from getting a world class eye surgery for yourself, you are also indirectly helping needy rural patients for his/her free eye surgeries,” says Dr. Ramani a Rotarian who started Sankara Eye Foundation in India and in 1998 prevailed upon nephews in the SF Bay Area to get involved. Little did Murali Krishnamurthy, his brother K. Sridharan and their neighbor, Ahmad Khushnood Kazi know the juggernaut they were rolling out!

Forty five million people in India are visually handicapped, twelve million are totally blind, one fourth of the world’s blind population lives in India, and a majority lives in villages. “SEF needs to grow from our current $3M to $4M per year annual revenue to at least $8M or $9M revenue per year to meet the Vision 20/20. I am very positive we will get there,” says Murali Krishnamurthy.

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The clock struck eleven in Santa Clara California. Alkesh and Seema along with six thousand dancers raised their voices in unison to sing the aarti. At the very same moment the board of SEF inaugurated their ninth hospital in India. Channo stood in a line outside the new hospital in Kanpur. This Diwali she too would see the colors of the festival in their entire splendor.

Ritu Marwah is a resident of the Bay Area where she has pursued theater, writing, marketing, startup management, raising children, coaching debate and hiking. Ritu graduated from Delhi with a masters in business, joined the Tata Administrative Service and worked in London for ten years before moving to the Bay Area. 

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