Student’s vision brings sight to world’s poor
By Jessen O’Brien, AB‘12
Photo by Robert Kozloff
I saw a way to alleviate global poverty by providing people in the poorest areas of the world with sight.”
If you wear glasses, you’re among the world’s fortunate few.
According to the World Health Organization, 90 percent of the 285 million people worldwide with poor vision live in low- or middle-income countries where a pair of glasses could cost a year’s salary. College third-year Janice Guzon is trying to change all that.
“In the summer of 2008, my family received a letter from my aunt in the Philippines asking for money to buy a pair of eyeglasses,” says Guzon. “This struck me as odd, as I’d always taken for granted the affordability of eyeglasses.”
So Guzon got to work. At age 15, she cofounded EYEsee, a nonprofit organization that aims to redistribute to those in need the 4 million used glasses that North Americans throw away each year. Five years later, EYEsee has donated more than 31,000 glasses to people in Haiti, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Uganda. In January, her project helped her win Glamour magazine’s inaugural Top 10 College Readers’ Choice Contest.
“Eyeglasses can be the difference between keeping a job and living in poverty,” Guzon says. “I saw a way to alleviate global poverty by providing people in the poorest areas of the world with sight, in order to increase their quality of life and their ability to be productive members of their community.”
EYEsee’s success is the result of many passionate volunteers and partner organizations as well as Guzon’s dedication. One such partner is PeopleWeaver, a nonprofit organization seeking to improve the social and economic status of impoverished women. Jeanne Ratzloff, president of PeopleWeaver, first contacted EYEsee in 2011. She wanted to take glasses with her on a visit to the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Uganda, where PeopleWeaver focuses most of their efforts.
“People would walk long distances even before I got out of bed,” says Ratzloff. She recalled one man who fell to his knees in despair after learning that all the glasses had been distributed. “I was horrified. I just wish people would see what [Guzon] does—it means so much.”
EYEsee will be a part of PeopleWeaver’s next trip to Uganda, while Guzon has become a part of Ratzloff’s drive to help others. “When I’m starting to doubt myself, I often think of her. It’s motivational,” says Ratzloff. “I wish people would use her as an inspiration to do things for people here and elsewhere.”
Ratzloff’s wish is coming true. Glamour’s contest helped spread the word about both Guzon and EYEsee. Roughly 200,000 people voted for Guzon, and the contest started new conversations about how to help people around the world. Guzon plans to use her $1,500 prize and the increased public interest to launch EYEsee Vision Centers this year. These global health centers will provide year-round ophthalmological service in remote, impoverished areas.
In addition, Guzon has set the ambitious goal of collecting 12,000 pairs of glasses in this year’s campaign. Guzon isn’t afraid to dream big—and to make those dreams a reality. She embodies a belief among many students in the College, that great ideas are meant to be put into practice. As a public policy and sociology double major, Guzon finds that her nonprofit and academic careers constantly intersect.
“Working with EYEsee has involved creating and implementing sustainable policies that allow the organization to run large-scale eyeglasses collection campaigns and distribute to several countries worldwide,” says Guzon. “Given this experience, I bring a real-world perspective to class, and I’m also able to juxtapose the concepts that I learn from policy studies with the work that I’ve done with EYEsee to give me a more holistic understanding of developmental policy—my specific policy interest.”
Running a nonprofit is a large load for a full time student, but Guzon does so with cheerful determination. “The simple truth [is] that I will always find time for something that I love to do.”