IAGB SPOTLIGHT – Vision-Aid Co-founders, Ram Raju and Revathy Ramakrishna
“What can’t be cured has to be endured. Vision-Aid aims to build this endurance.”
IAGB: IAGB welcomes Ramakrishna (Ram) Raju and Revathy Ramakrishna, Co-founders of Vision-Aid Inc. Please share with our readers your life’s journey. Where was your upbringing, your biggest influences and how did you meet each other?
Revathy: I was born in Chennai but spent most of my early life in Ranchi, Bihar. My father, a highly respected Mechanical Engineer, retired as a Director from MECON and his tireless work on Coke Oven projects in almost every major Steel Plant in India was an inspiration. My mother, a retired schoolteacher, was loved not just by her students but by anyone who met her. Both my parents were extremely hard working and service oriented. It is they who inculcated the spirit of service in me right from my childhood. My parents used to provide hot meals and clothing to the poor. My father still personally serves food at the Leper colony. They are very charitable in their outlook and always ready to help. I have a younger brother who lives in Bangalore, India. I am fortunate to come from musically gifted family and was blessed with talent and inspiration all around me. I picked up singing at a very early age and that is how I met Ram who used to play the guitar in our engineering college music club.
Ram: I was born in Bangalore. My dad is a distinguished alumnus from the 2nd batch of IIT Kharagpur. He came from a modest family and not only went there on a merit scholarship but saved some of his scholarship money to send it back home so his siblings could also go to college. He was a creative and forward-thinking successful entrepreneur. My instincts for new ideas and new initiatives is a gift from him. After retirement, he has spent the last 16 years as a volunteer President at Vision-Aid India. My mother was also a schoolteacher and I draw my passion for education from her. I grew up in Kolkata and went to college at Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra where I met Revathy. After graduation, we worked in IT Services Division of Tata Steel, Jamshedpur for seven golden years. Ramya, our daughter was born then. Even though we had a very comfortable life, I started to grow restless and explored ways to grow. I was selected by the Rotary Club Foundation from Bihar for a scholarship-based master’s program in Computer Science & Engineering at Penn State University. Revathy stayed back working full time and taking care of Ramya for those two years. After my graduation, they both joined me here in Lexington just as I started working here. One of my sisters lives in Lexington too and the other sister is a doctor practicing medicine in Vizag, India.
IAGB: Besides Vision-Aid, have you been associated with other volunteering work?
Ram: Revathy volunteered as a teacher at Shishu Bharti. A born Tamilian, she taught Hindi for twelve years because of her fluency and love for Hindi. Additionally, she was an active volunteer in Indian Americans for Lexington (IAL).
Revathy: Ram was involved with meditation from very early on and has volunteered in organizing several meditation retreats. He is part of Association of Meditators in Greater Boston and through that they run courses in meditation locally. We open up our home weekly for Vipassana meditation sittings. Vipassana meditation started with Gautama, the Buddha and now it is offered freely in over 200 meditation centers that were established by Shri. S.N. Goenka throughout the world. More information regarding this can be found at www.dhamma.org
IAGB: What was your inspiration to start Vision-Aid? How did ‘Vision’ become the focus of your philanthropic service?
Ram: Not everyone is aware but I myself have significant visual impairment. I started losing my vision at the age of seven as I was afflicted by optic nerve atrophy. So, while this loss of ‘full and complete’ vision has been a setback, I have also had many blessings. Academically, I have earned two Masters degrees from reputed U.S universities and have been blessed with a satisfying and successful professional career, so I am very grateful for the life I have been given and have no complaints. My close and personal encounter with vision impairment got me thinking about what I can do to give back to people suffering from loss of vision, especially in places like India where good services and opportunities are underdeveloped.
When we began this venture, we had no idea that this will grow into an NGO with multiple centers serving the visually impaired. We started with one center in my hometown Vizag. My dad had just entered his retirement years and with his help and our limited personal funds, we opened our first center in 2004.
Revathy: We established Vision-Aid as a 501(c)3 organization in 2005. At this time, we got some of our friends involved who joined us as our first board members and contributed to Vision-Aid’s growth. As time progressed, some more individuals and other NGOs got interested in our work and gave some grants and donations to sustain and grow Vision-Aid services in India. In 2008, we had our first successful public fund raiser event in Lexington. From then onwards there was no looking back and every year the fundraising events (dance shows) just kept getting bigger and bigger. Not only did the shows get bigger, but the cause started attracting the support of many generous philanthropists. This growth in fundraising really helped us and today we have twelve centers in India. Additionally, some of these centers have grown significantly in terms of providing several new services. We have different levels of centers. Three of our centers are “Tertiary Level National Resource Centers” offering a range of advanced services.
IAGB: What kinds of services do Vision-Aid Centers offer to the people in need?
Ram: The services offered fall into three categories – Enable, Educate and Empower. Programs which enable persons with low vision offer a comprehensive low vision evaluation for infants, children and adults, and provide them with optical and electronic magnification devices. Patients who are blind, are provided with training depending upon their needs such as orientation and mobility which teaches navigation techniques to walk and move around safely. Additionally, the centers provide skills training such as computer applications, mobile technologies, spoken English and advanced courses to name a few and more skills training are being added on a continuous basis. [Please refer to the graphic below for all the programs provided].
Revathy: Most importantly Vision-Aid is working with the subset of population that has incurable vision problems. At the start of this journey, we interviewed many optometrists and ophthalmologists in Vizag. During these conversations we were shocked to learn about the plight of the people with incurable vision impairment, who were being turned away from most eye hospitals and clinics without any further recourse. Their problems cannot be corrected by surgery or modern medicine. What cannot be cured has to be endured. Vision-Aid helps to build this endurance. In summary, Vision-Aid’s programs offer vision rehabilitation program for people with incurable vision problems and through these training programs they learn to live an independent life and as contributing members of the society. Unfortunately, India is amongst the countries with highest number of blind and visually impaired. There are myriad reasons for this such as economics, poor nutrition, genetics and consanguineous marriages. By rehabilitating one visually impaired individual with employable skills and helping them to lead a meaningful life, we help the entire family of that individual. The whole family is energized because it unburdens the caregivers both economically and emotionally.
IAGB: Who all can avail these services? Is it open only for poor people or anyone can avail?
Ram: Mostly people at the lower end of the economic strata visit our centers, but we do not turn away the people who can afford it. It is just that the grants are used to cover the underprivileged people. We partner with major eye hospitals in India such as Sankara Nethralaya (Chennai), Aravind Eye Hospital (Madurai), Shroff Charitable Eye Hospital (New Delhi). All these hospitals provide services to the well off and the poor equitably. We follow a similar model. Those who are able to pay are charged a nominal cost for the services and those who cannot we offer our services and devices free of cost. This model helps towards the sustainability of these centers.
IAGB: How does Vision-Aid staff its organization and Centers?
Revathy: All personnel in US are 100% volunteers and we have no paid staff here. In India, we have a mix of volunteers and paid staff. For all the critical services, we have paid staff. In 2020, we will have a footprint of around 40 paid staff, both full time and part time, who work under the guidance of our amazing India Leadership Team. Their job roles range from program managers to trainers. In addition to these we have about 140 dedicated volunteers. Beyond this, our grants help to fund several staff members at partner organizations. Nonclinical and mission noncritical work is outsourced to volunteers. A large percentage of our paid staff are visually impaired themselves. Some of these have been our own trainees. We try and hire the visually impaired wherever possible.
IAGB: What is the structure of Vision-Aid organization?
Ram: Mr. Puran Dang is the Chairman of Vision-Aid. Today Vision-Aid’s ownership rests with the Board of Directors who are elected every year. Presently we have fifteen members on the board. Within the Board we have officers – President, Vice President, Executive Director, Treasurer, and Assistant Treasurer. Our first President was Mr. Paramesh Garimella, followed by Mrs. Anu Chitrapu, and now our current President is Mr. Syed Ali Rizvi. Additionally, we have an advisory board which has eight members. Starting this year, we added Council of Ambassador with three amazing leaders. So overall we have 28 members in the leadership team and each of us have a role and responsibility to play and execute tasks. Even though only some of them have been named here, each one is amazing in their own right and we wish we could name them all. The recruitment happens largely through word of mouth and through referrals from existing members. And in alignment with the cause, eight members of our leadership team are either optometrists, ophthalmologists, or occupational therapists. They help, advise, and guide us. The Board meets once every two months.
Revathy: We term it as a Vision-Aid family. The Board has always been harmonious, and everyone is empathetic to the cause. I believe the cause makes everyone humble and motivates all to give their best in form of money, time and talent. Every President and the Board have taken Vision-Aid to the next level and our Chairman, Mr. Puran Dang, offers his invaluable support and guidance at every step.
IAGB: How many fundraiser events does Vision-Aid organize in a year?
Revathy: Presently, we have only one fund raiser event every year. Our first ever Dance production fund raiser event was produced by Ranjani Saigal. From there, Jeyanthi Ghatraju, who is now Co-Chair of Vision-Aid Council of Ambassadors also joined hands and helped to take Vision-Aid fundraisers to new heights. Jeyanthi Ghatraju is also a current IAGB Director. The dance community in Boston area has been amazing in bringing both talent and ingenuity to the productions each year. We are also very grateful to have the support of other Artistic Directors such as Sujatha Meyyappan, Sripriya Natarajan Moorthy, Thenu Raajan, Kalpana Balachundhar, Marishakthi Muthuswamy, Hema Iyengar and few others along the way who have been a constant presence in these productions, and all have worked cohesively under the talented choreographer, Madurai R. Muralidharan. We have about sixty dancers from different dance schools, who set aside their individual styles and come together for a unified show. The dance community is not just the dancers, but we are grateful to their entire family and friends for becoming our well-wishers.
IAGB: What are the near term and far term goals for Vision-Aid? What are your plans for further expansion?
Revathy: Our goal is to partner with every major eye hospital and blind school in India and later in other countries including the United States. The partnership will result in the creation of several Vision-Aid Resource Centers that offer a range of services to the visually impaired.
Ram: Over the past 15 years, through our learning and experience, we have developed a comprehensive model for vision rehabilitation and now it is a question of rolling out this model to as many places as we can, while continuing to refine it as needed. As we mobilize more funds, we should be able to execute this next phase in a scalable and efficient manner. We are so gratified to see many individuals who are coming forward to help us create Vision-Aid centers. On our website we have different levels of giving, and so for a commitment of just $10,000 a year for five years we can start a new Vision-Aid center at a new location at a primary level and higher amounts for secondary and tertiary level centers. So, the real long-term dream is to expand Vision-Aid centers globally including someday, one right here in Boston. Also, someday, we would like to have chapters of Vision-Aid spread across the US and multiple countries. We are so happy that many find it in their hearts to support this cause and on our part, we will do our best to make good use of every dollar and every resource volunteered to the best extent possible.
Revathy Ramakrishna works as Program Manager, Government Initiatives at Fresenius Medical Care of N.A. She was recognized as the Woman of the Year 2019 by India New England for her work and dedication to the cause of Vision-Aid .
Ramakrishna (Ram) Raju works as a senior technical architect for a global technology services firm. He was honored by Harvard University with the Derek Bok Public Service Prize for 2019 for his work on Vision-Aid. Raju was also awardedthe Making a Difference Award by Children’s Hope of India, an NGO based in New York, for his work on Vision-Aid.