Reflections on Global Impact Volunteering in Ghana

By Daniel Yeboah-Kordieh
Princeton University
Summer 2011 Global Impact Fellow

Eye care remains one of the neglected sectors of health care in developing countries like Ghana. This is because as compared to health issues like malaria, its debilitative effects are not readily seen. Donor agencies and health policy makers in such countries have thus been forced to focus their scarce resources on fatal diseases like cholera and malaria. This means that these neglected eye care problems and their adverse effects, like forcing young ones to stay out of school to take care of their blind family members, persist in poor areas of the country. Fortunately, most of these eye care problems are easily preventable, and that is where Unite For Sight and its dedicated set of volunteers come in.

As a young man who grew up with several eye problems myself in Ghana, I was excited to learn about the great work of Unite For Sight online and from previous volunteers. I raised about $1800, obtained 600 reading glasses, and set off back to my home country to work as a Global Health Volunteer. My research on Unite For Sight’s program had convinced me that this program was one in which my efforts would actually make a huge impact on the communities I would be serving; this was a big source of motivation for me. In addition, I was sure I was going to come out of this program learning a ton, and yes I did. Not only did I learn a lot about global health, and the health situation in my home country, but I also learned a great deal about myself; Unite For Sight taught me to push myself beyond what I thought was my limit; it also taught me to think outside the box.

The learning experience of the Global Health Volunteer Program began way before I actually arrived in Ghana. I initially flinched when I was told raising a minimum of $1800 was a prerequisite to participating in the program. Given that I was a freshman international student, who barely knew anyone in the United States, I sincerely thought this amount would be impossible to raise. However, this turned out to be a life lesson of ‘tenacity in the face of challenges’ that this program would teach me. I had the immense support of officials at Unite For Sight’s office, who would call me, and discuss innovative fundraising techniques with me. In addition I was given a fundraising webpage that streamlined the process. Within a few weeks, I had raised way more than the minimum requirement ($1981!); I was forced to think outside the box, push myself, persist and overcome a challenge I thought was impossible.

Unite For Sight also had a solid online preparatory course that allowed me to gain extensive knowledge of the eye and its diseases as well as global health best practices. I hence did not arrive in Ghana feeling clueless. I spent 2 weeks volunteering in Tamale, in the Northern part of Ghana and 2 weeks in Southern Ghana. I had lived all my life in the Southern part of Ghana, and this was my first time in the Northern part of the country. We travelled with Regina, an ophthalmic nurse; Daniel, an ophthalmologist; and enthusiastic Ali, the volunteer coordinator from Tamale to a different community every day. Our day at each village involved screening everyone who had come that day for possible problems. As a volunteer, I was mainly involved with performing visual acuity tests, taking records and dispensing drugs and eyeglasses. One thing I loved about this program was that volunteer teams visited the same villages regularly (about every month or 2 months), hence they were able to check up on the status of patients they had seen previously. To members of such communities, this meant so much. I remember there was one old lady, who unexpectedly stood up among the other patients to testify about how much Unite For Sight had transformed her life. She had cataracts that were blinding here gradually, and thus made it impossible for her to work to support her family. She had been a beneficiary of Unite For Sight’s program, and had received free surgery that had restored her vision.

That being said, patients we screened who were identified to have cataracts were flagged, and transportation was later arranged for them to come to Tamale General Hospital, where Dr. Wanye worked, to receive free eye surgery. The monies we had raised back in the United States paid for these eye surgeries. In other words, I had the chance to see with my own eyes the impact of my fundraising on other’s lives. This also meant I had the chance to be in the theatre room and observe such surgeries. My experience volunteering in the South was not very different from the North. In the South, I worked with Dr. Clarke and his team, who are very passionate about what they do.

Volunteering for Unite For Sight was not all work. With the help and coordination of the local doctors, I had some free time to explore parts of Ghana I had never been to. We had the chance to go with the local clinic staff to Paga’s crocodile pond, where we patted friendly crocodiles on the back. I also had the chance to hang out and work with other volunteers from other schools and other countries like the United Kingdom and Canada. Most of the volunteers shared similar interests in global health and health care with me, and we thus bonded over such issues. The friends I made working with Unite For Sight are friends I still keep in touch with, and will possibly be life long friends.

The Global Health Volunteer program is one you put a lot into, but then you come out feeling that you have gotten so much out of it. This program solidified my interests in delving into the healthcare industry as a career. This to me is an exciting industry, and there is so much to be done. I personally admire the principles and philosophy behind Unite For Sight’s work, that’s why I accepted whole-heartedly to represent them on Princeton University’s campus.