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Seva Promotes Health and Development - 2001-08-15

Seva is an ancient Sanskrit word meaning "service." It is often found in sacred Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. The diverse founders of the Seva Foundation - including a doctor, a virologist, an anthropologist and a clown - chose that name to reflect the spiritual basis of their wish to help ease the suffering of others.

Suzanne Gilbert has been working with the Seva Foundation's many projects since its inception in 1978. According to her, it is Seva's continuing goal to combine the bottom line in terms of the number of people helped with the compassion that only comes from an authentic relationship between equals. She said, "I think the compassion part comes in with the listening and arriving together at what the solution would be in any given situation. We spend a lot of time getting to know the communities and the issues with which we are working and also getting to know what have been the past attempts to work on these problems whether they are problems of infant mortality or problems of people remaining blind until death unnecessarily, or people who are living in communities with no potable water."

The first and largest of the foundation's many projects, and the one for which it is best known, is the Seva Sight Program. Since 1979, doctors have performed over one million operations to remove cataracts from people's eyes. Cataracts are a clouding-over of the eye's natural lenses. By surgically replacing those lenses with artificial lens implants, blindness can be prevented and even reversed. Seva's Sight Program began in Nepal and India but has now been expanded to Cambodia and Tibet.

Alexa Wilkie oversees current operations in Tibet. "We are trying to help the partners in Tibet," he said, "to build a regional eye care program. That means training local people, giving the clinical skills, training them in eye care management, training them in research methods so they can learn to monitor and evaluate the work that they are doing, providing them with eye care supplies and equipment, building the eye departments at each of the regional hospitals and we are also holding eye camps to try to provide services to the people who need the care right now."

Suzanne Gilbert says that doctors and other paid staff perform only a fraction of what Seva does. Most of the logistical and support work is done by volunteers. "By the way," he said, "our volunteers come not only from North America and Europe, but they also come from Africa, from Asia people giving of themselves to their own and other communities increases the possibility that that service will really make a difference."

Another place where Seva serves is in the mountains of northern Guatemala, working with 22 Q'eqchi Mayan Indian communities on a host of inter-related projects.

Paul Paz y Mino directs Seva's Guatemala programs. He said, "They are there because they were all displaced at the time of the civil conflict that ran on in Guatemala until several years ago. And these communities are as basic as you can get."

Mr. Paz y Mino continued, "The work that Seva has been doing with them is a community development project that works on many different levels -- from health education, midwifery training, school building, road building. We're getting into setting up rural clinics with the health promoters that are receiving training now."

Mr. Paz y Mino adds that Seva's approach is unusual among aid organizations because its workers do not staff the centers and build the roads or run the schools directly. Seva offers funds, expertise and training to local community groups, which then become the long term primary partners in the projects.

"So this wasn't a one or two year project," he said. "The first stage was a five-year project. And we'll see at the end of that stage what the next stage should be. If the community moves in one direction, Seva moves with them. As long as it fits in with our guiding principles, the community itself should determine what their priorities are. The reason we work with Q'eqchi communities is they have a real respect for their land, for the environment with a real focus on sustainable development. We respect their traditions as well as their method of development and living."

Seva has several other projects worldwide, including in the United States, where it works with several Native American Indian tribes on grassroots health and economic development. Seva is funded almost entirely by individual contributions and benefit events.

To find out more about Seva's programs and its philosophy on the internet, please go to and take it from there.