Alumni Profile: Jennifer Staple-Clark ’03

In September 2000, Jennifer Staple was a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College interested in starting a new club. Twelve years later, this project has grown into the global non-profit. Unite for Sight is an internationally visible organization bringing eye care to communities in India, Ghana, and Honduras.

Staple-Clark’s original inspiration for the organization came during the summer of 2000. A biology and anthropology double major at Yale, she experienced her first introduction to patient care while working that summer at an optometrist’s office. She heard stories from patients who came in with glaucoma, which if untreated, allows pressure to build up in the eye, damaging the optic nerve and causing irreversible blindness.

“These people had health insurance and went to other doctors but just not eye doctors. They hadn’t noticed visual deterioration until it was too late,” Staple-Clark says. She also noticed that a lot of New Haven’s population did not have health insurance.

And so the first chapter for Unite for Sight was born. It started as a group of 35 volunteers who made trips to the soup kitchen and New Haven Public Library to spread knowledge about existing resources.

Volunteers work at local clinics, providing surgeries, preventitive care, and education. Courtesy of Unite for Sight.

By the time of her college graduation three years later, Staple-Clark decided to branch out to other university campuses. There are now 50 chapters of Unite for Sight in North America. The organization expanded even further in 2004 when it launched its global health delivery program in Ghana.

“I originally planned for it to be a student organization that would work to eliminate patient barriers to eye care in New Haven. I did not anticipate that it would become a worldwide health organization,” Staple-Clark says.

Staple-Clark saw her work in college as a stepping stone for a larger role in the realm of global eye care and health education. She explains that about 80 percent of blindness is preventable or curable by simple surgeries or care. Cataracts, for example, are a significant source of blindness in developing nations, but the treatment is only a 15-minute outpatient surgery. Still, some communities cannot access or afford this care.

“A lot of governments focus on HIV or malaria, known as killer diseases, and don’t recognize eye care as a critical issue,” Staple-Clark says. But she argues that the impact of blindness is often underestimated in its impact in other measures of quality of life. In developing countries, for instance, children often become caretakers for blind adults, preventing them from attending school and thus contributing to the cycle of poverty.

With this in mind, Staple-Clark extended the global health delivery program to India and Honduras. An annual Global Health and Innovation Conference brings professionals from different medical disciplines together to cross-strategize.

Additionally, Staple-Clark emphasizes the importance of research. A core of volunteers within Unite for Sight has been studying the “barriers to care that are impacting communities,” such as poverty and a mother’s perception on eye care for her children. The outreach program sends local optometrists into villages to dissipate eye care myths such as “putting urine or breast milk in the eye” as a cure for conditions.

She finds her work with Unite for Sight incredibly fulfilling. “I work with remarkable local eye doctors who are collectively providing quality care each year to more than 200,000 patients living in poverty. They are incredibly committed and dedicated to improving health outcomes in their countries, and I can think of nothing more rewarding than working with them to improve lives,” she says.

Looking back, Staple-Clark reminisces how she “absolutely adored” her time at Yale and shares some advice. “It’s so important for students to follow their passions, not just what they are interested in but what they could become interested in,” she says, offering her decision to double major as an example. She only became curious about anthropology after shopping a class on a whim. “I found the combination to be terrific because I was able to explore cultural and medical anthropology alongside scientific aspects of biology,” she says.

Staple-Clark’s work has not gone unnoticed on the national stage. In 2009, she won the National Jefferson Award, regarded as the Nobel Prize for public service. She was the 2011 recipient of the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award for her health advocacy and activism. She is also a member of the President’s Council on International Activities at Yale.

Staple-Clark plans on continuing running Unite for Sight for years to come. She reflects, “We’ve currently reached about 1.4 million people, but there’s a constant need in so many different locations to bring people care. Every two years we try to add a new clinic partner, and we’re always working to enhance our existing programs. I have such a passion for the work we do.”