December 23, 2014
Ashanthi Mathai has a clear vision: to provide eye care, including glasses, for those who cannot afford it.
In her effort to help, the Bethesda woman began So Others May See, a nonprofit that works toward “a world where everyone can see,” a slogan the group uses in its literature.
Mathai grew up in Sri Lanka and came to the U.S. to attend college, where she studied chemical engineering and creative writing. She also has a master’s of business administration and works in health care strategy consulting.
“I have an intrinsic interest in the field [of health care],” she said.
While living in Sri Lanka recently, she was approached by the chairman of the Lions Club Sight First program there, who asked her to collect used glasses for the Sri Lanka program. The Lions Club is an international organization that works to prevent blindness. Part of its mission, according to its website, is to collect used eyeglasses, prepare them for reuse and distribute them through clinics.
“I decided to look into [getting new glasses],” Mathai said. Glasses “are actually a manufacturable product and I found that a pair could be made for less than $6. So I set up a nonprofit.”
Mathai said many Sri Lankans have untreated vision problems because of cost and a lack of eye care services.
She sees the solution as providing cost-effective, good care and believing it can be done, she said.
After finding a way to get good lenses and frames at a reasonable price, the nonprofit partnered with the Ministry of Health in Sri Lanka to provide vision screening in schools.
The group has provided vision screening to nearly 900,000 schoolchildren, plus new, custom-fit eyeglasses to 24,000 needy adults — “all in just three years of operations,” Mathai wrote in an email.
Mathai said she has seen the difference corrective glasses can make in the lives of both children and adults. She has plenty of thank-you notes to share from grateful recipients. But she has her eye on the world.
“The need worldwide is great: 300 million suffer from uncorrected refractive errors and have avoidable vision impairment,” she wrote. “In 2011, just over one billion people lived on less the $1.25 a day and simply cannot afford to pay for eye aids.”
Those data are in line with a 2010 report by the World Health Organization that estimated there were 285 million visually impaired people in the world.
Mathai is seeking funding from individuals and organizations to expand the group’s focus. And that is not all.
“My eventual dream is to have a nonprofit medical device company,” she said. “Many things have gone off patent and can be manufactured and priced for broader access.”
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