Sankara Eye Foundation, USA was founded in 1998 by K. Muralidharan, Ahmad Khushnood, and K. Sridharan, with the mission of eradicating curable blindness in India. Starting off by mailing handwritten notes to friends, family, and prospective donors, SEF hit the $1 million mark in 2003. The organization raises funds through various events held primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as other parts of the United States. The money goes towards supporting community eye care activities in India in collaboration with organizations like the Sankara Eye Society, which runs Sankara Eye Hospital in Coimbatore.
Established on 5.26 acres of gifted land in Coimbatore, the Sankara Eye Hospital delivers affordable specialty eye care through a dedicated team of 75 honorary medical consultants and 250 medical and paramedical personnel (including 40 ophthalmic surgeons).
“We are like the marketing arm of the hospital,” says Muralidharan about SEF.
Volunteers at the hospital go to villages, identify people in most immediate need of eye surgeries, and transport them by bus to the hospital. Food and costs of the hospital stay are all taken care of—$30 for a cataract eye surgery and $100 for a corneal transplant. This Gift of Vision program is further bolstered by the Sankara Eye Bank, which receives a donation of a pair of eyes almost daily, thus enabling corneal eye transplants.
For every free surgery performed, painstaking records are kept and donors receive letters telling them who the surgeries were performed on, and when.
In addition, SEF also supports other projects like the Rainbow preventive eye care program. Through this program, over 2 million schoolchildren have been screened for undetected visual defects, and have been provided free remedial measures, both medical and surgical.
What is 20/20 by 2020? It was initially difficult to define the scope of this ambitions goal, Muralidharan explains. After careful thought, SEF arrived at a viable target: build 20 hospitals in India by the year 2020, each performing up to 50,000 eye surgeries per year, totaling a grand figure of a million per year.
“We think that figure will act as a catalyst and make a big dent into the visual handicap,” Muralidharan adds. Also, current projects such as the Coimbatore and Guntur hospitals have generated interest in donors to set up new hospitals. “For India to benefit, we don’t have to be controlling and running every hospital. Our experience can be transferred to other people.”
SEF recently announced completion of its second hospital in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. Built with a total investment of $1.5 million, the Sankara Eye Hospital in Guntur is equipped with 100 beds for free patients, 20 beds for paid patients, and state-of-the-art outpatient facilities and a modern operation theater complex. Currently, the hospital is equipped to take care of 10,000 free surgeries and 5,000 free surgeries annually. In the next stage of expansion, the capacity is expected to grow to 25,000 surgeries.
Following in the success of the Guntur hospital project, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Maharashtra are all in the line-up to provide community eye care to rural India.
Like any successful nonprofit, SEF proudly boasts a base of 200-plus dedicated volunteers throughout the United States, and several in India, who have practically devoted a lifetime to perpetuating the cause of the Sankara Eye Hospital.
In the Bay Area, a core group of volunteers meets weekly on Fridays, and over a potluck dinner and casual chatter they sort out important issues pertaining to logistics and event management.
“It is very free-form. There is no hierarchy in our organization, at the same time it is very organized,” says Sridharan.
Girish Muckai, who has earned respect amongst the volunteers for his event-planning skills puts it all very simply. “It is a fun experience,” he says. Muckai and his wife Sandhya were initially motivated by the cause of SEF at a cultural fundraiser. They signed up as volunteers, and the impact they were able to make as an organization only moved them to get involved deeper. Today Muckai devotes between 10 and 20 hours to SEF besides his regular job. “The amount of work involved in for-profit and non-profit ventures is about the same. But it’s the community support for the non-profit that makes it more rewarding,” he adds.
Volunteering her time in the East Coast is Sejal Dave, one of the younger volunteers who is also known for her dynamism. Inspired by an SEF ad on television, Dave, who is also a kathak dancer, put up a dance show and offered the entire proceeds to SEF. Currently pursuing a double major at Rutgers University doesn’t leave her much time for active volunteering, but she considers herself a “recruiter” for SEF. “Since the show, at least 20 students have promised to volunteer their time and efforts for Sankara,” she says.
SEF’s next fundraiser is a golfing event in May. Not necessarily a high-revenue generator, the event is an attempt at getting visibility for the organization in the mainstream community. “Fundraising is not the only aspect of an event. It could also bring us valuable contacts for the future, help us reach out to new people,” says Muralidharan. Most recently, jewelers Tiffany & Co. in San Jose announced their support of Vision 20/20 by 2020 at an evening reception with over 75 invitees who had donated $1000 or more each to SEF.
It truly takes the vision of a caring community to enable the needy with sight. If you would like to participate, donate, or know more about SEF’s activities, visit www.giftofvision.org.
Nitya Ramanan is the assistant editor of India Currents.
TEE FOR 20/20
Scheduled for May 15, SEF’s golfing event invites golfers of every ilk to enjoy a day of relaxed golfing in Jose. Whether you are showing off your swing or practicing it, here’s where and how you can do it for a cause:
When: Sunday, May 15, 2005, 1 p.m.
Venue: The Cinnabar Hills Golf Course, 23600 McKean Rd., San Jose, CA 95141. (408) 323.5200. www.cinnabarhills.com.
Play Format: Four-person best ball, shotgun start.
Entry Fee: Early bird specials are available un
til Apr. 15.
Single $150; Foursome $550. After Apr. 15, single $165; foursome $600. All entry fees also include boxed lunch and buffet dinner.
Prizes: 1st place, 2nd place, and 3rd place; lon
g Drive and nearest to pin.
Tickets: Call (925) 964-0210, (510) 226-1544, (925) 595-1021, (925)-367-7611, (408) 251-3438, (925) 875-9793, (866) SANKARA.
Following the golfing tournament in May, SEF’s upcoming events include: On May 21, Katte, a Kannada drama to raise funds for SEF’s Karnataka hospital; on June 12, a walkathon in the San Ramon area; and on Oct. 8, dandiya in Santa Clara.
Several events are being planned on the East Coast, too, including a bharatanatyam recital and a dandia show.