“It’s amazing to see what the synergy of like-minded people can do. This 1.3 million is not just a number, it’s 1.3 million lives who have started seeing,” said Dr. R.V. Ramani, founder of the Sankara Eye Care Institutions in India, at Sankara Eye Foundation’s annual gala Dec. 12 at the Sakoon Restaurant.
The banquet hall was brimming with Indian American community philanthropists, business and social leaders, volunteers and donors, who gathered at the event to support the organization’s flagship mission of eliminating curable blindness in India.
Vital funds to the tune of $700,000 were raised during the night to support and empower the underprivileged experiencing sight loss in India. “Mr. Ram Reddy announced 100,000 at the BATA banquet, one anonymous person donated 100,000 and another person gave 50K,” Murali Krishnamurthy, founder and SEF executive chairman, told the media.
“I would request people to close their eyes and donate, so we will open more eyes. It’s your hospital, and we are helping our people back home,” he said, adding that an anonymous donor has offered to match all donations up to $1 million until Dec. 31, 2015.
The annual charity event attended by mostly Indian Americans was part of the foundation’s fundraising efforts for its new hospitals in Hyderabad, Telangana, and Indore, Madhya Pradesh. The land for the Indore hospital has already been procured while the land for the Hyderabad hospital has been identified, said Krishnamurthy.
SEF has played a pivotal role in increasing the number of free eye surgeries provided annually for the economically disadvantaged in India — from 8,000 in 1998 to over 150,000 surgeries and counting today.
The organization has so far conducted more than 3.6 million adult vision screenings, over 5.1 million children screenings, performed 8,145 pediatric surgeries and distributed over 107,000 free eye glasses, all free of cost.
Ramani, delivering the evening’s keynote address, spoke on Sankara’s history, growth, philosophy, goals and achievements. “Eighty percent of the country’s blind are needlessly blind,” Ramani said at the gala. “When we give vision to a child, we give the next 80-85 years of productive life, and when we give vision to an adult, we make him/her the breadwinner of the family.”
Ramani was accompanied by his wife, Dr. Radha Ramani, with whom he founded the first Sankara Eye Hospital in Coimbatore in 1977. “The whole values of Sankara are the five principles… serve silently, serve with humility, serve without conditions, serve with love and conviction,” Radha Ramani said at the gala, noting the importance of acts performed with love.
“People from this part of the globe are donating, and we deliver the service at the other end, and when we see the actual benefit reaching out to them, not in hundreds or thousands but beyond a million, it is a soul-fulfilling experience,” R.V. Ramani told the media.
Emphasizing bringing the gift of light to the underprivileged, Ramani said, “Giving vision at every age has got a tremendous impact and doing that for someone who does not have access to and cannot afford it, it’s amazing.”
The evening was an entertaining one featuring vibrant musical performances and a cocktail reception and dinner. With eight fully functional hospitals, the foundation aims to build at least 20 eye hospitals across India by the year 2020 under its Vision 20/20 project, and to perform a million surgeries annually.
“It’s like having an extended family as Sankara Foundation in United States, who contributes by thought, conviction, involvement and monetary,” said Ramani. “Today we are able to replicate the model everywhere in India because of the contribution that is coming from here.”
The organization, one of the world’s biggest charities of its kind, is the recipient of many honors along with securing a coveted four-star rating from Charity Navigator for its sound fiscal management and commitment to accountability and transparency, said Krishnamurthy.
The uniqueness of Sankara’s social enterprise lies in its replicable and sustainable model of 80/20, wherein 20 percent of patients pay for the free treatment that the 80 percent poor receive.
Ramani said it takes about 18 months for a hospital to be constructed and fully operationalized, and about five years for it to become financially self-sustainable after inception. “Donors have to think in terms of supporting the cause not just one time,” he stated. “Every year they should give some support as the first five years they are all toddlers, and we have to hold their hands until they start walking by themselves.”
These super-specialty eye care hospitals equipped with Lasik facilities treat not only cataract, which is a major cause leading to blindness in India, but also offer a full range of comprehensive eye care services, including ocular oncology. A program called SANQALP or Sankara quality assurance learning program, is in place, where a quality champion is identified for each hospital, who drives quality in that hospital, along with tracking 48 quality indicators on a month to month basis.
“Our site restoration rate is at 98.3 percent,” Dr. Kaushik Murali, president, medical administration, at Sankara Eye Foundation, India, told the media. Forty meritorious girls from the disadvantaged section are trained on a curriculum-based program to serve as technicians, and to make sure that the knowledge percolates from the seniors to the fresh recruits; in effect, Sankara hospitals have set up a knowledge management system, Murali said.
Another unique feature of Sankara is the Rural Outreach Model, which brings eye care to the doorstep of rural India. Eye care and diagnostic camps are conducted in villages every week to screen poor patients for eye problems; those needing surgeries are taken to the base hospital for treatment.
Free transportation, food and lodging are provided for patients during their hospitalization. The also receive systematic follow-up ensuring effective post-operative care.\ The organization also uses technology to the maximum for a targeted intervention.
“Today, all our hospitals are linked and data transfer is real time. We have built our own app, SERVICE, which stands for Sankara Electronic Remote Vision Information System,” Bharath Balasubramaniam, president of community outreach at Sankara Eye Foundation, India. “The app enables us to reach out to the community, screen them and also tag them, so we are able to map diseases, identify where there is more prevalence of diabetes, cataract and hyper tension and then decide our camp location,” he said.