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Education in Sight: discovering the power of glasses

There are many people who leave their mark in this world during their lives. But few actually make an impact. Andrew Shirman and Sam Waldo, two American young men who are striving to take their fledging non-profit organization Education in Sight (EIS) across China and beyond, hope it will enable them to do exactly that.

Gift of sight

The idea behind Education in Sight is simple - to provide spectacles to students from underprivileged background with sight problems. The fact that about 20 to 30% of the students in rural China need glasses but don’t have them is known to very few people. In total, that is about 40 million kids. And the consequence of not being able to see clearly is grave, to say the least.

“It started with a pair of glasses, and it goes to lower grades, misbehaving in class and dropping out. It is a real progression and we got to see it all the time.” Andrew and Sam lost no time in pointing out the urgency and scale of the problem they discovered three years ago during their days as volunteer teachers in China and have since been trying very hard to come up with a solution.

Both of them taught in South China’s Yunnan province for Teach For China (TFC), a sister program of Teach For America, which aims to tackle education inequality in the country. Both raved about the experience, with no mention of the hardships of life in Yunnan’s mountainous countryside, focusing instead on the discovery that completely altered their life path.

Eye screening for the children in the rural Yunnan province where Education in Sight first started. Photo: Courtesy of EIS

“It is something I noticed really early on. In fact I think a lot of Teach for China fellows noticed that their kids couldn’t see,” Andrew said, who is the founder, and now CEO of Education in Sight.

“The children would say that they are used to not seeing well because they don’t want to cause their parents trouble or spend the family’s money. And when their grade slips, their parents would think this means they are bad students. In those places where people haven’t seen the tangible benefits of an education, dropping out is common.”

Andrew decided to do something about it. In his second year, after “cutting his teeth as a teacher”, he was able to dedicate more time to his glasses project, which later was named Education in Sight.

With some luck, Andrew found a local eye doctor to help him take the project off the ground. “We were very lucky to have found Dr. Peng, who takes care of all the vision screening. He would load his equipment onto his truck and drive out to the schools for a day or two days’ work of eye screening for the children, all free of charge.”

When the children got their prescriptions, Andrew and his friends would then buy the individualized glasses through Peng’s supply chain at a discounted price, which will be delivered to the students within two to three weeks.

The money they used to purchase the glasses was mostly raised through crowd funding campaigns which was done through a US website. They also received donation from a TFC sponsor which saw them through the entire year. Three schools participated that year, including Sam’s. Over 1,600 students were examined, and 330 pairs of glasses were given out.

“The changes we saw in our classroom were immediate and amazing,” Sam, a Columbia alumni and now the Chief Development Officer of Education in Sight, said snapping his fingers, “Just like that.” Students who would otherwise drop out of school were transformed almost overnight. “It all came down to a pair of glasses, as simple as that. Once you’ve given them the tool (eye glasses), there is no limit to what they can do.”

In his 7th grade class that year, 14 out of 54 students got glasses. In a most recent project, they went to a school of about 500 students, where about 100 needed glasses and only three had them. “This is the kind of urgency we are addressing,” Sam said.

With students. Sam apologized for the "poor quality" of the photo. But the smiles on the children's faces are simply precious. Photo: Courtesy of Sam Waldo

Taking the torch

“It’s not like we found the problem. The problem kind of fell on us,” Andrew stated matter-of-factly. He admitted he had never imagined that he would one day run a non-profit organization in China, a country he had always found fascinating ever since he came here on a school trip as a teenager.

After finishing their two years with TFC, they went their separate ways. Andrew went back to the US and Sam relocated to work in Beijing. “But we kept up the conversation and decided this is something that should not end with us.”

On a part-time basis, the duo continued with their Education in Sight projects. In the second year, they expanded it to 15 schools in Yunnan through the help and support from their many devoted volunteers, mostly TFC fellows, who are referred to as “sight leaders”.

“We relied heavily on the energy of our great volunteers, who collected donations from friends and family in small chunks to support their specific programs.” To date, EIS has delivered eyeglasses to 3,372 students and performed eye screening for over 22,000 students.

People’s ignorance of the rural children’s need for eyeglasses is a constant issue the organization has to deal with. “The truth is rural children have eye problems just as much the urban kids,” Sam explained, “The schedule of study is the same. They get up at 7 o’clock in the morning and study late into the night. Their classroom was 20 to 30 feet deep and they often have to study with candles at night because the power goes out. So their eye strain is very serious. ”

Andrew with one of the many students who benefitted from his Education in Sight program. Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Shirman

“We believe our organization is necessary because no one has focused on correcting vision for students. This problem is still going undetected or ignored,” Andrew added. “If we could find the students with the problem, get glasses to them early enough, we could stop them from dropping out of school. In the long-term it could reap huge economic benefits for the country.”

Looking ahead

That is why after two and a half years of working part-time and operating from project to project, Andrew and Sam decided to do it on full-time basis. “It is going to be very difficult but it is so worth doing,” said Sam. “We are really taken by the idea which has the potential to create huge impact, not just for the lives of the children but also for beneficial economic effects.”

“It’s nice to finally be here and do this full-time,” said Andrew who just settled down in Beijing and has been busy working on forming partnerships since. “Things have really started to escalate. It’s been very worthwhile.”

Through various contacts, particularly Andrea Pasinetti, founder of TFC, they have been connected with many influential people in the field, like Jordan Kassalow, founder of VisionSpring, a hugely successful social enterprise that has a similar vision as EIS.

In China, they are gathering support from the likes of AMC Live, a big player in the Chinese business world, who made a major contribution to EIS to help them launch their project in Sichuan province, where the company is headquartered.

“We are now looking at a bigger geography, beyond just one prefecture, and one province,” said Sam. “We have some really ambitious goals for the future that starts with fund-raising, which is something we are spending a lot of time doing. We hope to get committed partners on board, not people who want to just donate 100 pairs of glasses, but people who really recognize the importance of our cause and will commit to support us with regular donations to help us to get firmly established.”

Talks with hospitals and manufacturing partners are also under way, as the two “are trying to find a scalable as well as a sustainable way” to pursue their cause. “We hope we could connect all the resources here in China and establish a strong program to develop them rather than just carelessly using them.”

Having run their project in China for two and a half years, both Andrew and Sam understand the importance of engaging both ends: establishing good connections with the governments to leverage change from the top down and to engage the local community, especially the parents, to try and redefine the rural perception of eye care for the children as well as to make sure that the glasses are put into good use.

Besides their work in China, Education in Sight is also running similar projects in the US where the same problem persists and they have gained a lot of recognition for their work. “We hope the different experiences will eventually help us to go global.”

“But China is where we started. The large majority of glass manufacturing is done here and a huge underserved population is also here. Plus a lot of pieces are already in place to solve this issue. So yeah, China is our main focus,” Andrew revealed.

Students getting their glasses from their teacher, an EIS volunteer. Photo: Courtesy of EIS

As two foreigners trying to run a full-time nonprofit in China, Andrew and Sam know very well the complexity they are facing. “We are trying to be audacious in our goals but also humble about the challenges,” Sam said. “We have a good cause. And we have evidence of the success of our solution. It is one of the few things that can have such a huge impact with such a small investment. It won’t be achieved alone, and won’t be right away. But it is definitely worth fighting for.”

Propelled by such strong faith, the two young men embarked on their pursuit of the greater good, working on a mobile basis and with no salaries (at the moment), to serve a country that is not their own, but they both came to love dearly.

“I have no regrets,” said Andrew. And Sam, standing right beside him, nodded in agreement.

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