Karen Sparrow began her career as a student at Cardiff University, where, in her own words, she “fell in love with eye care in the first week”. After initially working as a high street optometrist in the UK, she managed UK Professional Services for Vision Express, followed by a new role at the Association of Optometrists (AOP), leading their work to train and mentor optometrists across the UK.
In 1997 Karen began volunteering with Vision Aid Overseas (VAO), allowing her to combine her skills in training and mentoring with her love of travel. Among other activities, she led VAO visits to Zambia, Uganda, Ethiopia and Botswana, working with local eye health organisations to develop sustainable eye health solutions. She also helped to run VAO’s UK volunteer training and overseas education programmes.
According to Vision Aid Overseas CEO Nicola Chevis, “Karen participated in no less than 13 overseas assignments with VAO, firstly as an active team member, then as an outstanding team leader. As the Education and Training Director at Vision Aid Overseas, she oversaw all our optical and volunteer development training and provided technical support to our teams. If Karen didn’t know an answer to a question, she always knew someone who did, her professional network was amazing! She will be so missed by all of the teams here at Vision Aid Overseas.”
Karen joined the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers in 2001. She was proud to be part of the Company and played an active role explaining its modern purpose and working to encourage a more diverse and international membership. Even when the decline in her health meant she could not attend events in person, she led social media activities, sometimes even from her hospital bed.
The Master of the Company, Ian Davies, says, “Karen was one of the most selfless, enthusiastic and positive people I have ever met. She made a real difference to vision through many organisations and countries. We will miss her presence, but we know that her spirit will remain with us.”
Karen never described herself as an academic but she was involved in research throughout her career. In 2016 she completed a Masters in Public Health for Eye Care with the International Centre for Eye Health (ICEH) at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which is where she encountered Peek Vision.
“When Karen joined the Peek team in 2017, I was frankly just really excited that our startup social enterprise had managed to attract somebody of her calibre,” recalls Peek CEO Dr Andrew Bastawrous. “She was one of our first official team members and it was clear that she had a lot to offer. But I could never have imagined that she would make such a difference to our organisation. She was a hugely generous and passionate person who had a profound effect on everyone she worked with at Peek.”
As Head of Global Programme Training at Peek, Karen worked with colleagues to establish the new organisation’s training and support team. She was responsible for developing and implementing Peek’s training model, a critical part of the organisation’s work and one that will live on for many years to come.
Karen was much in demand as a speaker, committee member and facilitator for global optometry professional bodies and events. She was a Fellow of both the American and the European Academy of Optometry and a member of the World Council of Optometry (WCO), where she played an active role organising their biennial World Congress of Optometry and sitting on their Congress and Scientific Committees.
Professor Peter Hendicott, WCO President, says, “WCO is saddened to hear of the loss of one of our optometry family, Karen Sparrow. Karen’s desire and enthusiasm to progress our profession internationally, and her support of WCO educational activities contributed greatly to the development of global optometry. She will be deeply missed. Our thoughts are with Karen’s family at this difficult time.”
Anybody who didn’t know Karen might assume that her incredibly active professional life would leave her little time for anything else. In fact, she brought the same energy and generosity of spirit to her personal life as she did to eye health. She was proud to have been a games-maker at the 2012 London Olympics and 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and she was a keen runner and much loved volunteer and runner at her local parkrun.
She volunteered for Guardians of the National Treasure, a small charity in South Africa helping children growing up in poverty. After her diagnosis with ovarian cancer in 2019, she was also a persuasive advocate for cancer awareness. In amongst these and other activities, not to mention a busy family and social life, she somehow still managed to find time to regularly make delicious homemade cakes and jams, a wonderful treat for anyone fortunate enough to work with her.
The response to Karen’s loss has been one of both profound sadness and sincere gratitude from everyone who knew her for her wonderful life and career. Global eye health has lost one of its kindest, most passionate advocates, and the world has lost a generous, selfless and truly inspiring individual.
Image: Karen in action on a training visit to one of the programmes using Peek in Zimbabwe a few years ago/Credit Council for the Blind Zimbabwe