A flying visit with a lasting impact

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The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital has been restoring sight to thousands of people for over 30 years  

What do you get when you combine an old FedEx aeroplane, some ex-pilots with a good idea and the advice of medical experts? The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, of course, which has been changing the lives of countless people across the world since the 1980s.

Many of us are familiar with French skincare brand L’Occitane en Provence, which is renowned for its exceptional products, but
it is its charitable work throughout the years that equally deserves such recognition.

“L’Occitane as a brand began in 1976 and we started to put Braille on our products in the 1990s, which was a pioneering action
at that time. Olivier Baussan [the founder] wanted to do something to make the products accessible to everyone and to start raising awareness about blindness,” says Charlotte Bonnet, General Delegate at the L’Occitane Foundation.

“Since the brand has been successful he wanted to have some give-back action to share the success with the communities around the brand, so when the L’Occitane Foundation was created in 2006 it was obvious to support the fight against avoidable blindness. We also support actions for women’s leadership and the preservation of natural heritage in Provence, in the
south of France, but our main project at the Foundation now is the fight against avoidable blindness and within this programme we include the Orbis partnership.”

Charlotte’s role sees her responsible for all the philanthropic actions of the brand. “The company gives me more than €1 million every year and my job is to make sure that this budget is used well and in a transparent way, for the biggest impact.”

The link between Orbis and L’Occitane began in 2000, when the company launched their first solidarity product and used the funds raised to support the charity. “The solidarity products are launched every year for different programmes and NGOs around the world, but are always aimed at fighting avoidable blindness and 100 per cent of the profits go towards NGOs and charities. “L’Occitane had ten years of great partnership with Orbis and since then we have developed a new partnership, but through other types of actions.”

This new action is the huge contribution L’Occitane made towards the construction of the Patient Care and Laser Room on board the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital. “We raised €400,000 among directors and trustees of L’Occitane in 2011 and this room made sense for everyone. It’s where you get your treatment, but also the room where you first open your eyes when you recover from your surgery, so it was actually a very impactful story for us.”

“For any project we support financially around the world, it’s very important for us to know how the funds will be used on the field. To know that these funds would go towards a concrete and precise room and to understand the role of this room within the process of training staff locally and providing surgeries and eye care for the people there. It was important for us to know what it would be used for.”

Diane (left) is pictured with Maurice Cox Chairman, Orbis Ireland and Donal Brosnahan, Volunteer Faculty, Orbis.

Diane (left) is pictured with Maurice Cox Chairman, Orbis Ireland and Donal Brosnahan, Volunteer Faculty, Orbis.

Diane Weatherup, Development Director for Orbis Ireland says: “The goal of Orbis is to eliminate avoidable blindness in the developing world. It’s a great charity to work for because you can see the impact. My role here is to fundraise across Ireland, to raise awareness and money from the Irish people. Orbis started with the plane; some ex-FedEx pilots thought it would be a good idea to get an ex-FedEx plane and convert it into a hospital. They got together with some medical experts and started to brainstorm and The Flying Eye Hospital took its first flight in 1982.”

So far FedEx has donated three planes, the third of which is in use. “There’s only ever one aeroplane in operation at any one time,” says Diane. For the past 11 years Orbis Ireland has focused on a project in southern Ethiopia, due to the predominance of a bacterial disease, trachoma.

“The prevalence was one of the highest in the world in this region and Orbis Ireland took on the project of completely eliminating the disease from this region, of about 2.5 million people. The progress so far has been excellent; we’ve achieved a reduction of 75 per cent so we are on the right track and we’re hoping to achieve that by 2020. What we’re doing is e ective and it’s working.

“It’s the World Health Organisation SAFE strategy, so that’s basically conducting surgeries, distributing antibiotics, educating communities on facial cleanliness and then improving the environment, like sanitation and clean water.

“The Flying Eye Hospital will fly into
a country and spend six weeks there.
As part of that they will go out and find cases that are suitable for teaching. It’s all based on the teaching side of it and not trying to get through as many surgeries as possible.”

Michelle Newman