Lions’ Great Achievement: SightFirst “There is always a sense of adventure in a new enterprise, and the Lions’ way of serving the blind is something new in the world.” In 1927, just two years after challenging Lions Clubs International to become Knights of the Blind, Helen Keller spoke these words—a validation that her call to action had been answered. More than 60 years later, however, there remained much work to be done. It was time for Lions to embark on another new enterprise. In the late 1980s, blindness plagued 38 million people around the world. Left unchecked, experts predicted that number would more than double to 80 million by the next generation. Despite this grim situation, there was a distinct ray of hope. Experts estimated that perhaps 80 percent of all cases of blindness were preventable, treatable or even curable. About 90 percent of people with vision impairments lived in developing nations, where significant but surmountable challenges impeded progress. The situation was dire, but not unsolvable. After more than a year of initial work, the Lions Clubs International Foundation officially inaugurated Campaign SightFirst in 1991. It would immediately become the most ambitious and far-reaching fundraising drive in the organization’s history. The goal of Campaign SightFirst was to raise US$130 million by 1994 and to aim to conquer blindness, in all its diverse forms, through grant projects driven by local Lions. With that in mind, Lions focused on creating programs that could provide direct, practical benefit to people in the developing world with easily preventable or treatable afflictions. The most prevalent cause of blindness in the early 1990s was cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens typically related to aging. Cataract surgery had long been common, safe and very effective in the United States, but developing countries had to contend with major barriers. The lack of education about the causes, symptoms and treatments for cataracts was one obstacle. Unfounded fear of treatment was another. Assuming a broad education campaign could help raise awareness, there were still many inherent challenges to overcome—lack of accessible medical services in remote areas, lack of transportation or communications infrastructure to facilitate treatments, and lack of trained eye-care professionals, facilities and technologies. So Campaign SightFirst focused on mobilizing funds and volunteers to remove as many barriers as possible. One example: Lions developed programs to provide transportation to treatment centers. Countless local volunteers stepped up. Past International President J. Frank Moore III, who served from 2001 to 2002, remarked, “That is one of the key components that others see in … being able to partner with us—knowing that we do have that manpower component.” Indeed, SightFirst gathered powerful partners in its quest to eradicate blindness. The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, the World Health Organization, The Carter Center and many other government agencies and nongovernment organizations aided Lions’ efforts to combat not only cataracts but also diabetic retinopathy, trachoma and onchocerciasis (river blindness). Lions in Mexico measure a girl for the correct dosage of the medication that prevents river blindness. After three years of tireless efforts worldwide, on April 14, 1994, Lions surpassed their goal, raising a total of US$130,335,734. As of December 2005, US$182 million had been raised for 758 projects in 89 countries. These projects included constructing or expanding 207 eye hospitals, providing 65 million treatments for river blindness, training 83,500 eye care professionals and launching the world’s first initiative to combat childhood blindness. Lions-funded cataract surgeries also restored sight to some 4.6 million people. The accomplishments of projects funded by Sight- First were so inspiring and effective that a second fundraising campaign, called Campaign SightFirst II, was officially launched at the 2005 International Convention in Hong Kong.
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