Local And International Efforts Widen Newtown's 'Eye' On Liberia

Published: February 12, 2018 at 12:00 am


At the Newtown Lions Club January 24 meeting Reed Intermediate School fifth grade teacher Karen King presented the news that the Lions Club International Foundation's SightFirst Grant is funding $400,705 for an eye clinic project, called the "Sustainable Comprehensive Community Eye Health Program."

The project began as a local effort, and the new eye clinic will be funded for the Grand Bassa, Margibi, and Rivercross Counties in Liberia. This is the second eye clinic effort Newtown efforts will support.

For years, the humanitarian-minded Ms King has been working closely with Robert Dolo, a cataract surgeon and an an ophthalmic nurse, whose home country is Liberia. The two met through efforts with Unite for Sight in Ghana. Thanks to their efforts and the efforts of others, the New Sight Eye Center in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia in Liberia, was founded in 2012, due to the Newtown Rotary Club acting in partnership with the Connecticut Rotary Clubs from Rotary District #7980 (Westport, Stamford, New Canaan, and Greenwich), plus the local Interact Club at Reed, to fund the project (See story in the September 21, 2012, Newtown Bee.) Other funding efforts also supported the project; eventually the New Sight Eye Center was moved near the New Life Christian Academy school building that was built partially with money raised by Reed students during the 2013-14 school year. The sixth graders surpassed a challenge by an anonymous West Coast couple to raise at least $3,000. The couple donated the remaining money to build the new school building for the academy through the Well Done Organization for roughly $25,000.

The idea of furthering eye care support in Liberia has been a local effort since around 2014.

Pursuing The Grant

During one of Mr Dolo's visits to Newtown over the years, Ms King said they spoke together at another Newtown Lions Club meeting. That presentation inspired former Newtown Lions Club President Ray Keegan to call Ms King, to offer his support after the meeting in 2014.

"He was the first one open to shepherding this through the process," said Ms King.

Then the research began. Ms King said the first efforts focused on looking for grant options. Mr Dolo, Ms King, Mr Keegan, and New Sight Eye Center Board of Directors Vice Chair Cathy Cameron worked to write the first grant application, which was roughly 60 pages long.

Lions Club International has been an "incredible agent of change" for eye care in the world, Ms King said. According to the presentation she shared with the Newtown Lions Club this January 24, the Lions Club International has provided $318 million of support for eye programs worldwide since 1990.

"The Lions Club [International] does things like renovate old eye clinics, provide medicine and equipment, and, most importantly, it trains eye care professionals," she said. "Train one eye care professional, and you are going to reach so many other people."

According to the Lions Club International Foundation, the SightFirst Grants "turn the SightFirst mission, building comprehensive eye care systems to fight the major causes of blindness and care for people who are blind or visually impaired, into action."

At one point Ms King said the grant application seemed hopeless, but Mr Keegan "stuck with it. He was our hero who sort of promoted it through the process," she said.

Thanks to Mr Keegan's efforts, Karen Kilberg, the regional program specialist who oversees all sight-related grants in Africa for Lions Clubs International Foundation, learned of the grant application, according to Ms King.

Ms King, said Ms Kilberg, "was another hero for us."

"It is my job to receive all grant proposals coming from Africa, review them, present them to our SightFirst Advisory Committee, and, if approved, to oversee the implementation of these projects," Ms Kilberg said by e-mail on February 6. "I had received this proposal when I started working at [Lions Clubs International Foundation], and while the project initially needed significant revisions, I saw the great need for the project and immense potential."

Ms Kilberg said she knew there was an immense need for improved eye care services in Liberia, especially in the counties outside of Monrovia.

According to Ms Kilberg, the project was approved for implementation at the August 2017 SightFirst Advisory Committee meeting of the Lions Club International Foundation, and since its approval, "the project has been on hiatus as the project management committee in Liberia negotiated very important details about the project with the Liberian Ministry of Health. Despite a delay in the project timeline, these issues should be resolved soon and the project should be implemented as planned to the benefit of undeserved Liberians."

Implementing The Project

The Lions Clubs of Monrovia, according to Ms Kilberg, are implementing the project.

"Liberia suffered from a decade-long civil war, which destroyed the public health system," Ms Kilberg explained. "It's my hope and the Lions of Liberia's hope that this project will contribute, in what way it can, to the rebuilding of the country's eye care system and will serve those in need of basic eye care services."
The Lions who will be involved with implementing the project, Ms Kilberg said, have past experience with implementing SightFirst projects and are committed to ending avoidable blindness in Liberia. The technical implementation of the project will be overseen by the New Sight Eye Center and Mr Dolo.

Ms Kilberg said Mr Dolo's "role in the development of this proposal, and his expertise and assistance will remain vital throughout the implementation of the project and as the project is handed over to the Liberian Ministry of Health for management upon completion. The Lions have found a very good partner in Mr Dolo."

The grant will be dispersed over two years. In Ms King's recent presentation for the Newtown Lions Club she outlined that the Lions Club International grant will support renovating an existing facility for the new eye clinic, staff development, and purchasing equipment, furniture, vehicles, and medicine. New Sight Eye Center staff will supervise the startup of the new clinic, provide eye screenings and surgeries, organize and implement an outreach program, and more. The Liberian government will also have the responsibility to recruit, employ and retain eye health workers, and provide long-term support for the project, along with other responsibilities.

Ms King said the three parties overseeing the new eye clinic project - the Lions Club International Foundation, the New Sight Eye Center, and the Liberian government - each have clear roles and responsibilities. After five years the clinic will solely be overseen by the Liberian government.

"I think it is great to have so many people have an invested interest in the success of this," said Ms King.

According to the presentation, the plan is to have the project provide 800 eye surgeries per year, provide visual screening and treatment for more than 15,000 people every year, to ensure sustainable revenue by providing quality eye health services, and to "create a strong tie with the community for project sustainability."

The new eye clinic will be two hours away, by car, from the New Sight Eye Center, Ms King said. Mr Dolo is the chief ophthalmologist at New Sight Eye Center, according to Ms Kilberg

"It is in a more remote area, and it is in a much more rural area," said Ms King, explaining that is in the middle of the three counties - Grand Bassa, Margibi, and Rivercross.

"It will provide not only services at the actual hospital, but also extensive outreach. That is how it will reach most the people in the more rural areas," she explained.

People in the areas are farmers or sell items at the market.

"Right now in those three counties, there are no eye care professionals at all," Ms King said.

After years of effort, Mr Keegan said he is happy to have the project finally coming together.

"I'd like to see it carried through to fruition," said Mr Keegan. "I'd like to see the eye center be built. I'd like to see it be very successful and self-sufficient."

Ms King said she hopes to travel to Liberia this summer to visit the future cite for the new eye clinic, New Sight Eye Center, and New Life Christian Academy.

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