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In 1972, a group of American optometrists embarked on a journey that has since marked the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. A few years earlier, Dr. Franklin Harms, an optometrist from Kansas (USA), when returning from a volunteer mission in Haiti felt a strong call to put his expertise and that of other like-minded optometrists at the service of those who needed it most. The idea of developing a volunteer-based organization for this purpose began to occupy Dr. Harms’ mind and resulted in the first group of Kansas optometrists coming together as Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity -VOSH Kansas. Fifty years later, the global movement for accessible and affordable eye care that he started and that VOSH/International (V/I) represents keeps growing.
As the biggest global network of volunteer optometrists, our 98 US and international chapters deliver free optometric services to patients who cannot afford or access them and supports the education of future optometrists across the world.
Our trademark international humanitarian eye clinics -mainly organised by our US and Canadian chapters- have over decades provided sight to those most in need changing lives; in the US we are well known because of that work. Less known are the long-term partnerships that have been built around these clinics and some of the outcomes that contribute to the sustainability of our work. In Nicaragua, our humanitarian clinics were the initial stepping stones to what is now the established medical optometry career at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua (UNAN). The origin and current support to the young school of optometry in Haiti also goes back to past humanitarian efforts of VOSH-Pennsylvania. To achieve success; supporting local leadership and ownership of these initiatives has been essential.
As a purpose-driven organization, our volunteers share a strong sense of solidarity and humanity to serve their patients with the best care they can offer. One cannot but feel good when patients get their vision and functionality restored. Over recent years, the search for sustainability has transformed our approach, especially in relation to education.
Quality education is essential for sustainability. Our network includes 60 schools of optometry across the world, of which 37 are located outside the US. It is logical to maximise the clinical and academic expertise of our US volunteer optometrists to support the development and standards of optometrists elsewhere. Our current work includes lecturing, mentoring, supporting research, donating equipment to schools of optometry, offering continuing education and facilitating platforms for networking and collaboration; all geared towards strengthening optometry globally and its role in primary health care. Our Children’s Vision Program will support a multi-country participatory research initiative involving our student chapters (SVOSH) in Nicaragua, Mexico and Peru adapting proven protocols for the Latin American Region, building multi-disciplinary teams, collecting data and advocating for action on children’s vision. We are encouraged by the level of expertise, the willingness to share and learn from each other that exists within V/I.
Fifty years after the initial steps, this volunteers’ led movement is constantly adapting to fulfil its mission and building collaboration across eye health professions, countries and regions for the benefit of our patients. I am not sure if Dr Harms would have been surprised by the thousands of optometrists, and other volunteers that continue to pursue his dream. One thing is for sure, his legacy lives on.
Image on top credit: Mel Muchnik