Eye Health Hero: Michele De Vaal
Vision Aid Overseas (VAO) has nominated Michele deVaal, its Programme Director for Ethiopia, as its Eye Health Hero ahead of the IAPB 9th General Assembly in Hyderabad.
Vision Aid Overseas is an organisation committed to eliminating avoidable visual impairment and fighting poverty by transforming access to eye care.
It is extremely fitting that Vision Aid Overseas is nominating a volunteer as its Eye Health Hero.
For 27 years, the UK-based organisation has been channelling the expertise of international eye care professionals into the global fight against avoidable visual impairment through its work to fight poverty by transforming access to eye care.
Michele de Vaal is an exceptional example of a person who has committed an enormous part of her life to this work and vision. She has also led the need to develop new ways of working to ensure Vision Aid Overseas has a long-term impact in the countries it works.
In her role as Vision Aid Overseas’ Programme Director for Ethiopia, Michele has channelled her passion for international development and public health into dramatically expanding Vision Aid Overseas operations in Ethiopia. To this extent, in the last 10 years, four Vision Centres have been established in areas where the local population previously had very limited access to eye care and Vision Aid Overseas has shifted its focus to supporting the delivery of sustainable, country-led initiatives throughout Ethiopia.
Michele started volunteering at Vision Aid Overseas in 1997 and first worked with the charity in India. However, it was on her second project that she fell in love with Ethiopia and its people, and it is to her credit and her commitment to working on the ground with Vision Aid Overseas’ country partners that she was asked to become Country Manager for Ethiopia in 2004. She has continued in that role since then, and for the first six years did so on an entirely voluntary basis.
‘Vision Aid Overseas relies on the dedication and commitment of its volunteer professionals to carry out its programme work,’ says Michele. ‘It has been my pleasure and privilege to help to bring people together to work with our colleagues in Ethiopia and to deliver much needed eye care services and training in this wonderful country. My job is easy – it is the professionals on the ground that do the hard work. However, it is an honour and a thrill to be nominated to be the Eye Health Hero for Vision Aid Overseas.’
Since her time with Vision Aid Overseas, Michele has worked hard to focus Vision Aid Overseas’ work on developing innovative, country-led eye care initiatives. The first projects, conducted at the start of her time as a volunteer, were predominantly focused on delivering outreach services.
However Michele has championed the need to focus on education and training and now all programmes in Ethiopia are focused on training eye care workers and establishing Vision Centres where people can access affordable spectacles and eye health advice and referral. In this time, over 50,000 people have had their eyes examined and received spectacles, and Vision Aid Overseas has utilised the experts of over 150 volunteers to share their skills and transfer knowledge in Ethiopia. Trainees include over 70 ophthalmic nurses, 60 undergraduate optometrists, 20 optical technicians and registrar ophthalmologists.
The support Vision Aid Overseas offers the optometry students at Gondar and Hawassa Universities includes a programme where volunteers work alongside final year students on community-based projects, offering support and mentorship in clinical practice. Sharing skills in this way allows Vision Aid Overseas volunteers to provide experience and knowledge to trainees that they would not receive from classroom based training alone. Michele has also worked with both institutions to ensure the students have the training support they need, and ensured that they have been well equipped with learning resources as well as identifying volunteer personnel from Vision Aid Overseas to assist in delivering specialist lectures when required.
Suzy Lamont, Vision Aid Overseas’ former International Programme Director, says: ‘I am delighted to add my voice to this nomination. Having worked very closely with Michele and visited Ethiopia twice with her in the past two years, I have seen the impact of her work first-hand. Michele’s passion for providing access to affordable eye care in Ethiopia knows no bounds. For the past 10 years she has worked tirelessly to ensure that the many dozens of Vision Aid Overseas volunteers who have visited cities and rural areas in Ethiopia, have been well prepared and that the training programmes they have carried out are well planned and executed.
‘Michele has built up excellent working relationships with country partners, the health ministry and local hospital officials. I was constantly impressed by the enormous respect with which she is treated wherever she goes and the recognition for all she has achieved with the teams of volunteers who have delivered training and community-based services in local communities. In recent years the key focus of her work has been to develop Vision Centres so that they are able to provide a sustainable service for the communities they serve. She is indeed a worthy Eye Health Hero.’