In 2016, Sightsavers carried out more than 2.2 million eye screenings in India, performed 155,000 cataract operations and provided 200,000 pairs of spectacles to people in need.
In May 2017, Sightsavers Digital Fundraising Executive Nathan Hill travelled to India to visit a Sightsavers programme providing children in poverty with free eye tests and glasses. Here he shares his experiences.
I met Shahid on my first full day in Patna. We’d arrived the previous Sunday evening and experienced a relatively low-key drive to our accommodation. I shot the video above to give a taste of what the streets of Patna are like.
Our journey the next morning to Shahid’s school, in full-on rush hour, was our first proper experience of Indian roads. We were a little overwhelmed at first as we attempted to take in the incredible sights and life going on around us – all set to the background noise of semi-constant car horns.
During the summer months, children in Patna will often start school at 7am and leave around midday, due to it being too hot to work during hottest part of the day. As we arrived at Shahid’s school at 8am, the day’s first classes were well under way and the temperature was already creeping over 30°C.
When we arrived, we were shown into the headmaster’s office: after a short wait for a break in Shahid’s classes, his teacher wandered in with an anxious-looking Shahid in tow. He seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on his small shoulders, glancing nervously between us and his teacher as we began to ask him questions.
He answered timidly and cautiously, and it took some gentle encouragement from his teacher for him to open up about his life.
It transpired that Shahid had lost his mum when he was a baby. When his father remarried, he wasn’t wanted by his new stepmother, so he had been taken in by his grandmother.
His already challenging situation was made worse by his poor eyesight, caused by uncorrected refractive error – more commonly known as being short sighted, long sighted or having astigmatism. His prescription of -2.50 may not seem that high, especially for people like myself, who require a considerably stronger prescription. However, for a little boy whose grandmother couldn’t afford glasses it was a disaster.
He had been struggling to read the board for a while, so he was falling behind at school. We were told that many children in India who experience eye problems and can’t get treatment end up dropping out of school, becoming trapped in a cycle of poverty. Without help, this would likely have been Shahid’s fate. Once a keen cricket player, he also struggled to see the ball, especially in low light, so would often be forced to sit inside, rather than playing with his friends.
We discovered that Shahid had recently been screened for refractive error by his teacher and were delighted to discover he was about to receive the glasses he so desperately needed.
The sight of Shahid putting his glasses on for the first time is an experience that will stay with me for a long time. To see a young boy’s expression and entire demeanour change – and become happier, more relaxed and at ease with his surroundings – was incredible.
I was later told that as he returned to his classroom, he was met by a chorus of compliments from his classmates. “Doesn’t Shahid look smart in his new glasses!” they exclaimed – as heart-warming a greeting as I’ve ever heard!
Slightly later in the day, a group of Shahid’s school friends were also given their glasses for the first time. It was an incredible experience to see so many faces light up like Shahid’s.
Their teachers had performed their screenings a few weeks before and the children that needed glasses were able to choose the colour and frames themselves, which will hopefully encourage them to wear their glasses.
The video below shows one of the young girls having her eyes checked just after receiving her new glasses.
Once all the glasses had been given out, we were invited to travel to Shahid’s house to meet his grandmother, Sahjahan.
After a short drive, we parked up by the side of a busy road and followed Shahid through a series of alleyways. This was my first experience of a slum and the sights, sounds and smells around us were intensified within the narrow alleys. When combined with the intense heat, it made the experience all the more claustrophobic and stifling.
We finally climbed some concrete steps and reached the small single room he shared with his grandmother, which was located deep in the slum. The heat was sweltering, so we were relieved to be invited to sit and rest in Sahjahan and Shahid’s room.
As we spoke to Sahjahan, it became clear that she cared deeply for Shahid and his future. She broke down in tears as she described her devastation at finding out he was struggling with his eyes and how frightened she was about what would happen to him when she wasn’t around any more.
Later in the week we were fortunate enough to be able to return to Shahid’s school and see how he was getting on. The person we found was completely different to the little shy boy who had walked into the headmaster’s office a few days before. He was clearly more confident, both in class and outside it, and was enjoying being able to get involved in the lessons. He even stood up at the front and read to the rest of the class.
We were later told that since receiving his glasses, he’d started to flourish in class and he was already one of the top students. It showed the enormous impact that something as simple and cheap as a pair of glasses can have on helping children to fulfil their potential and break the cycle of poverty.