VisionSpring Supports Women While Spreading SightFor every $5 donated to VisionSpring, a low-income adult gets their eye prescription, a pair of glasses expected to last two years, and an estimated 120 percent increase from their initial income directly due to the glasses. This organization’s strategy zeroes in on the local: optometrists; female vision entrepreneurs as saleswomen; wholesale partnerships with government agencies, local hospitals and NGOs; and corporate social responsibility projects with large businesses. VisionSpring supports women, local business and helps create sustainable supply chains in the countries it works in.

Jordan Kassalow is the founder and visionary behind this organization that has already generated over $1.2 billion of economic impact. In 2019, he published his book “Dare to Matter,” in which he describes his journey. Starting as a mediocre student due to a rare eye disease, he had a post-graduation epiphany that people’s lives have meaning through their work to make the world better. While on a volunteer medical mission in the Yucatán Peninsula, Jordan gave an extremely nearsighted child a pair of glasses – and his sight.

Seven years later, Dr. Kassalow founded what would become VisionSpring today, to return productivity and livelihoods to the 2.5 billion sight-impaired people in the world who lack glasses. From the beginning, the organization has sought to empower women in the communities where it works. The Borgen Project interviewed Dr. Kassalow about how VisionSpring supports women in its sight-focused mission.

When you first had people on the ground, how did you reach people – and specifically women – to let them know about the vision entrepreneur opportunity?

There are a few reasons why we select women. One was because there was a higher rate of unemployment or underemployment with women. So, they are a natural, existing workforce that was underutilized. That was the whole root of the idea, to create livelihoods for the women and sustain livelihoods for their customers. (Microcredit research) showed pretty clearly that when you gave women access to resources that a lot of virtuous things started happening in society: their fertility rates would go down, the health of their children would go up, their housing conditions would go up and so forth.

We partnered with microcredit organizations and eye hospitals (for more advanced cases and to) give some credibility to the women who worked for us. The microcredit organizations were already in the communities where we worked (and) had a whole list of good customers who had exhibited their capacity to pay back their loans. So, it was largely through local credit organizations that we started identifying women and continued to source people.

I read in your book about one vision entrepreneur, Rama Devi, who has her husband driving her on a motorcycle so she can reach more people. It seems to upset traditional gender roles and has vision entrepreneurs stepping out of their traditional jobs at home (and) making more money than their husbands. Did you ever see any conflict of interest or anything like that?

Particularly in that area of India where we were working which had a Muslim culture primarily. It was somewhat antithetical to the historical-cultural norms for women to take on these more entrepreneurial roles, so we lost some of our best salespeople. We found that women would come, educated, supported somewhat by their husbands and fathers-in-law. But there seemed to be almost an expectation that they wouldn’t succeed. So, they would let them (work) while the stakes were low. But for those who would start to succeed, and the money would start to flow in, we saw many cases where they had to withdraw from the program, not because of a lack of their interest, but because of pressure from their husbands or fathers or so forth. So, we definitely did experience that.

I wanted to ask how (the See to Learn) strategy of providing glasses to schoolkids differs from adults. What initially drew you to this sector of the population?

I’ve always looked at vision as an input to global development and human development. The two areas most impacted by poor vision are productivity in work and learning in school. When you start an organization that has basically no human and financial resources, it’s good to try to take the really big problem and break it down to its component parts and strategically start with the place (that) execution-wise is the simplest. So, we started with See to Earn because it only required four different prescriptions.

Now, in kids, there is no similar corollary to simple, ready-made non-prescription reading glasses. Each kid has their own unique kids’ glasses (and) unique prescription, so it gets more complicated and you need higher trained people.

What we do is training teachers to do the work of the vision entrepreneur. (They do) the vision acuity test and figure who can pass and fail. And kids who fail, which in India is usually about 10 percent, get seen by a team of (local) optometrists who come once all those kids are identified. We can make about 70 percent of those glasses on the spot and (the rest) we custom make in the lab.

You mention in a 2017 interview with Mary Magistad from PRI that you encountered the issue of girls thinking they are less marriageable if they wear glasses. How have you amended your practice to account for cultural differences in the different countries you’ve worked in?

The cultural context is very important in our local operations. Particularly with girls, we find that almost the parents look for an excuse to take them out of school. If they are nearsighted and not thriving in school, they’ll be pulled out of school more quickly than the boys will. That’s a huge injustice.

Studies have shown that girls in India believe that, if you wear glasses, you are less marriable. We recently did a film that tracks a girl through identifying that she can’t see all the way to getting glasses and using them in school. We are trying to normalize, if you will, glasses through this film. It’s meant to be used as part of the curriculum before the team of optometrists comes to the school.

Dr. Kassalow’s newest breakthrough was the founding of EYElliance, a multinational coalition working towards integrating innovations into public and private sectors of countries around the world. Currently, with more than 40 member organizations (including USAID), EYElliance is Dr. Kassalow’s next big step towards achieving his original goal: getting eyeglasses to everyone who needs them. Hopefully, Kassalow’s ongoing priority that VisionSpring supports women will demonstrate to other international aid organizations that women are the building blocks to international development.

Daria Locher
Photo: Wikimedia

Viola_Davis
In the August/September 2015 issue of AARP The Magazine, Viola Davis of ABC’s hit series, “How to Get Away with Murder,” talks about growing up in poverty and why giving back is important to her.

Now the star of a drama that has 9 million viewers on the edge of their seats, Davis said she is living her dream by just being able to afford a house. “When you grow up poor, you dream of just having a home and a bed that’s clean — that’s a sanctuary,” Davis said.

In her interview with AARP, the actress said that she grew up in a household with five siblings in an old building in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Her mother worked in a factory and her father groomed racehorses. “But grooms don’t make money,” Davis said. “Definitely not enough to feed a family of eight.”

Her family received food stamps that paid for groceries which did not last the entire month. Occasionally, Davis had to resort to garbage dumps for scraps and sometimes she had to steal from a store. When she was caught, she felt so ashamed that she forced herself to stop. Davis then had to count on other means to eat.

“Most of the time, the school lunch was the only meal I had. I would befriend kids whose mothers cooked three meals a day and go to their homes when I could,” Davis said.

The summers were difficult because she did not have school to feed her, but the winters were not much easier. The pipes in the building where she lived sometimes froze over, so the family did not have water to clean with or drink. The furnace broke, and the family would have to use each other’s body heat to stay warm.

Despite her hunger and unstable home life, Davis performed well in school. She and her siblings wanted to make sure they did not live in those conditions in the future.

“School was their haven,” Sara Davidson, AARP The Magazine writer, said. “And they stayed late, participating in sports, music, drama and student government.”

School was not only Davis’ means for nourishment but also where she found her calling. She entered the Upward Bound program, which funded her education at Rhode Island College. After graduating, she attended Juilliard for their drama program.

Continuing in her success, Davis won two Tony awards and later received two Oscar nominations.

Though it seemed as if Davis’ rise to fame was only increasing, she still had her doubts about being cast in a lead role. In her childhood years, she had experienced racism every day.

“People would throw things out of their cars and call us the N-word,” Davis said.

Because of this, she thought she was too dark-skinned to earn a big part in a Hollywood movie. “That notion was upended when, in 2014, she was offered the starring role in How to Get Away with Murder,” Davidson said.

In addition, although Davis was more than pleased with her life as a professional actress, wife and mother, she yearned for something more. She was asked to be the spokesperson for Hunger Is, and now she is dedicated to giving back.

Hunger Is was formed by the Safeway Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation. The campaign seeks to end childhood hunger. With her own experience in the matter, Davis gave a touching speech about her childhood struggles. The two non-profits then donated $100,000 to the causes of her choice.

Davis divided this contribution between many organizations in her hometown including Central Falls High School’s Thespian Society.

Helping kids achieve their dreams, or even getting them meals, has brought Davis more happiness than acting. Although she had a difficult childhood, Davis is still looking up.

“There’s buoyancy and lightness in me. I’m not angry about my life. I’m not bitter at all. I’m happy,” Davis said.

To read more about Davis’ interview, visit the AARP website.

– Fallon Lineberger

Sources: AARP, Entertainment Weekly, Hunger Is
Photo: Flickr

KIVA_Crowdrise
1. What is KIVA’s main goal?

Shah: Kiva is a nonprofit whose mission is to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty.

Kiva is the world’s first and largest crowdfunding platform for social good. Visitors to Kiva.org can browse through the photos and profiles of people all over the world seeking a loan and choose those that they want to support with a loan of $25 or more.

Kiva’s community of one million lenders crowdfund more than $2.5 million in loans per week. These small dollar loans have helped more than one million low-income borrowers start and grow businesses, go to school, improve their homes, buy clean energy products, and more.

Kiva leverages the power of collective good and new technologies to push the boundaries of economic opportunity in unique ways. With the philosophy of empowering people around the world, Kiva is providing safe, affordable access to capital. Since its founding in 2005, Kiva lenders have loaned over $480 million in 72 different countries.

2. Tell me your most inspiring success story. Which of your clients really stands out from the others?

In one moment, Yenku Sesay’s life was changed forever with the swift, savage cut of a knife.

On May 6, 1998 Yenku had the misfortune of being home when soldiers from the rebel army, Revolutionary United Front, invaded his village in northern Sierra Leone to cut off the hands of people who voting for the country’s current leader. Yenku pleaded with the rebels not to cut off his hands. But the rebels took a certain enjoyment from the process. Each prisoner was pushed forward for his or her punishment and had to choose slips of paper in a gruesome lottery. The paper either said “short sleeve” or “long sleeve.” Yenku pulled two long sleeves. His hands were severed with a machete, first the left, then the right. Many of the victims did not survive.

Yenku would likely have soon died if his father had not taken decisive action. Yenku’s father used the family savings to hire a motorbike to take Yenku for treatment in a hospital hours away in the country’s capital city, Freetown. It took 3 days to find a motorbike they could use, and for these three days Yenku waited without any medial treatment. During that time, Yenku was just hoping to die.

Due to the treatment he received at a hospital in the nearest city, Yenku eventually recovered from the physical wounds. In other ways, however, his life was destroyed. He was incapable of taking care of himself and eventually resorted to begging in the streets of Sierra Leone. He was just 21 years old.

Yenku would still be begging today, had he not been approached by Salone Microfinance Trust (SMT), in 2006, about taking out a group loan with four other local borrowers to help them learn a trade and start a business. No other institutions were even willing to consider Yenku for credit because of his amputee status. However, through lengthy discussions with Yenku, SMT saw in Yenku natural business skills and a drive to be self-reliant.

Yenku used this money to develop a modest retail business. At first the business was no more than Yenku selling small items in the street, such as packaged biscuits, soaps, and other sundries. Over the past two years, by reinvesting the profits and building his credit with SMT, Yenku’s business has grown to become a small shop selling an assortment of clothing, shoes, drinks, and other packaged food products.

Yenku dedicated himself to his business, and every month he made his repayments on time and often early. With the profits from his retail business, Yenku has recently expanded into livestock and agriculture. The result is that Yenku is now self-reliant.

Today Yenku is married and has become a provider. He can feed and clothe his three children. He sends both of his school-age children to primary school, and he even pays for his younger brother’s education.

Thirty-three people from six different countries helped to crowdfund loans to Yenku by chipping in $25 through Kiva.org to support his business. Yenku has paid each and every one of them back.

3. How does KIVA make an impact in terms of poverty?

Kiva is striving to bring access to crowdfunded capital into the hands of the working poor around the world. In addition, we are increasingly seeking ways to crowdfund new types of loan products for the working poor to help increase access to clean/green energy, education, and more.

4. What do you think is the most important factor for KIVA’s success?

Designed to be user-friendly, Kiva enables anyone with an internet connection and $25 to engage in our microlending movement. This incredibly low bar for participation has helped Kiva become a pioneer in the crowd funding space and brought microlending into the mainstream.

People are by nature generous, and will help others if given the opportunity to do so in a transparent, accountable way.

Kiva was born from the knowledge that individuals are capable of lifting themselves out of poverty if given access to financial services – all they need is access to just a little capital, and Kiva loans provide just that.

By connecting people we can create relationships beyond financial transactions, and build a global community expressing support and encouragement of one another.

These core values continue to drive Kiva’s evolution and have resulted in more than 1 million lenders reaching out around the world to lend their support to more than 1 million people working to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Proof of a compelling mission and a sustainable model.

5. What do you feel sets KIVA apart from other organizations?

Microfinance has immense potential for improving the lives of the poor. In the last 40 years, it has reached nearly 200 million people. But — while the existing system strives to reach everyone — traditional microfinance still leaves a huge number of people out:

·       Subsistence farmers enduring uncertain seasons and harvests.

·       Students who make the grades but can’t afford college.

·       Extremely rural families with little opportunity.

·       Millions more who have the potential to change their lives with the right loan products.

Traditional banks and microfinance institutions are often unable or reluctant to offer flexible loan products to meet these people’s needs – mostly due to high costs and risk.

Enter KIVA. With more than one million lenders worldwide who don’t think like banks, Kiva is a powerful source of flexible, risk-tolerant capital. More and more, we’re directing this capital to social enterprises, NGOs, and microfinance institutions that are going beyond classic microfinance to take on issues like education, clean energy, agriculture and others that are central to poverty alleviation and economic opportunity.

Through Kiva’s lenders, we provide crowd-sourced capital to relieve the cost constraints on new ideas. And together with this new breed of Kiva partners, we’re testing and developing new financial products for borrowers worldwide.

Our approach is to see what works and share the results with a global audience. Ultimately, our hope is to get high-impact products to people who have been too long overlooked, and demonstrate their success to the global market.

– Samantha Davis

Sources: KIVA, BizDayTech
Photo: Imagur