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The gentleness of the Sankara family and their quiet demeanor reached out and enveloped attendees as they entered the India Community Center in Milpitas on December 8. Sankara Eye Foundation’s annual banquet was held to raise funds for surgeries and to support construction of hospitals in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana.

Student volunteers guided patrons toward steaming delicious food served by Mantra. Amritsari fish and almond tikkis along with melt-in-the-mouth tandoori paneer welcomed the guests. The aroma of hot sweet chai tea flavored the air mixing with the sounds of music sung by Smriti Jayaraman. Two dancers in bright Indian attire gracefully twirled on stage to familiar Bollywood tunes.

Picture: Founder and Executive Chairman of SEF, Murali Krishnamurthy , Mr. and Mrs. Ram Reddy (President TIE SV), Mr. and Mrs Jay Vishwanathan (ED TIE SV), Dr. Ramani(Founder and Chairman Sankara India).

Sankara’s target that evening was to raise half a million dollars. Ram Reddy urged the gathering to participate in the cause that changed people’s lives for as little as $30.

Dr. R. V. Ramani, the chief guest and founder Sankara Eye Foundation-India, explained that donations in part go toward setting up hospitals and building new operation rooms within existing locations. These new facilities work to become self-sustaining units. They operate utilizing the principle of an 80-20 split, meaning that for every one operation done for a client that pays, four free operations are performed for those in need at one of the hospitals run by Sankara in India.

India has the largest population of the world’s blind with over 55 million visually impaired individuals with 8 million of them totally blind. The Sankara team reported that each location completes 50 surgeries every day.

For a $1,000 donation, the donor can get their name imprinted on a wall reserved for founders, while for a donation of just $30 a donor can fund a single surgery.

Timely retinal scans prevent blindness in children. Dr. Kaushik Murali, a pediatric ophthalmologist who works at Sankara Eye Hospital in Bangalore said, “The two large public health problems that we have looked at are diabetic retinal disease and childhood blindness, especially amblyopia, where a child does not use both eyes equally. One eye is more dominant and the brain suppresses the other eye because of which development gets impacted. We can capture an image of the retina and have a machine learning (ML) algorithm identify the areas that have been impacted and help grade it. This procedure democratizes screenings and makes it available to a  larger number of people. In theory, we can take a picture of your retina with your Android phone and with some modifications run it through an app, and that app will tell you whether you need to see a doctor.”

Any improvements in the ability to identify amblyopia in children is crucial, especially when such improvements can help to broaden access to screening procedures for the majority of children. This is because children often simply adapt to changes in vision or visual impairment. Rather than identify the presence of an issue, they will rely more on one eye, moving further away or closer to the object they are viewing. Amblyopia results in reduced visual acuity, binocularity, depth perception, and contrast sensitivity.

This not only impacts the weaker eye, which is deteriorating, but also increases the strain on the other eye which is stronger. Strain caused by amblyopia can affect the child’s energy levels, fine motor skills, ability to concentrate, and can eventually cause social problems. These problems can lead to children losing confidence, failing in school, and being mislabeled as inept or aggressive.

Sankara’s work to combat amblyopia is happening across their multiple hospitals as well as through their work at partner hospitals.

Manjula and Viggy Mokkarala, who had seen Viggy’s father perform surgeries that altered peoples’ lives, chose Sankara as their nonprofit of choice. At the Sankara Foundation gala at ICC, they gave $100,000 toward this cause.

Similarly, Ameeta and Dilmohan Chadha donated a large sum to the cause. Chadha said he felt the tenets of his religion, Sikhism, sarbad da galah (welfare of all) and Vandh Chako, (share what one has with others), taught him to share what he had. Sankara, Chadha said, is the conduit through which we can practice our religion’s teachings.

As the evening progressed, the happiness of this shared experience of making a difference in people’s lives lightened the mood. The founder and executive chairman of SEF, Murali Krishnamurthy, broke into a song, “Jot se jot jalate chalo,” light one candle with another.

Ritu Marwah is an award winning author, chef, debate coach, and mother of two boys. She lives in the bay area and  has deep experience in Silicon Valley start-ups as well as large corporations as a senior executive.

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