The Observatory

Why am I still here?

Jennifer Gersbeck

Recently I bumped into an old friend I hadn’t seen for almost six years – it was great catching up on what’s happening in each other’s lives. We were amazed at how old our kids were; how passionate we were about exercise; and generally gossiped about who was doing what and where.

While my friend had changed jobs twice since I last saw her it reminded me that I have had the same job for over seven years – a record for me! It started me thinking. What is different about this job from previous roles I’ve had? Why have I stayed so long and what motivates me to continue in this role?

The answer came quickly. I feel inspired by the people whose paths I have crossed – from committed professionals who passionately strive to restore sight and improve the lives of people living with low vision; to the many people who are often so grateful for the help they have received.

Being able to inspire policy makers and people of influence to take action also motivates me. One of Vision 2020 Australia’s major achievements has been the Australian Government’s establishment of the Avoidable Blindness Initiative. The beginning of this advocacy success story can be traced back to late 2006. The political climate was changing in Australia and the new Leader of the Opposition believed that Australia needed to be actively engaged in international efforts to meet the global challenges that affect us all.

Vision 2020 Australia’s advocacy plan began with an opportunity to attend the ALP National Conference in May 2007. With just five minutes to influence key decision-makers, the message I delivered was that we had a big idea—an ambitious plan to eliminate avoidable blindness in the region. We also had the expertise required to translate this idea into action—all that was missing was the Australian Government’s support.

A follow up meeting between the Shadow Minister for International Development and eye health leaders was a huge success—demonstrating the strength of collaboration within the Australian eye health and vision care sector. Following the meeting, the Vision 2020 Australia Global Committee developed a three-phased 10 year Regional Plan which was submitted to Government and the Opposition.

On World Sight Day 2007, just five months after our initial meeting, the ALP committed $AUD45 million to an Avoidable Blindness Initiative and in its first Budget funded the Initiative as part of the Government’s disability strategy Development for All: Towards a disability-inclusive Australian aid program. Subsequent funding allocations have been made.

There is no doubt that this amazing advocacy success story is due to sound strategic thinking and opportunistic action. A strong conviction and relentless persistence, combined with a little luck, also helped.

Over the years I have had the privilege of meeting some of the people whose lives have been transformed by the outcomes of our successful advocacy. I was personally touched and inspired by Sister Myrna who manages the Takeo Hospital in Cambodia. As Sister Myrna showed me around the hospital I could not help but notice the admiration, respect and genuine love towards her from both staff and patients. She has dedicated her life to helping others. She combines leadership with compassion and is driven to achieve the best possible outcomes for the people of Cambodia.

In Vietnam I met an elderly lady who had been unable to see for many years. She explained how with her sight restored she would be able to return to her village and work on the land and be productive. She was so happy and grateful to those who had restored her sight – she held my hand squeezing it in thanks and appreciation. Being able to witness first hand the results of our advocacy work is incredibly motivating.

Closer to home Vision 2020 Australia’s partnership with Government and the sector continues to strengthen. There is no doubt progress has been made towards the elimination of avoidable blindness and reducing the impact of vision loss. As I approach my eighth year with Vision 2020 Australia it is hard to recall a period that compares in terms of significant achievements and considerable opportunities for the eye health and vision care sector.

One partnership opportunity occurred last year when Vision 2020 Australia joined forces with Diabetes Australia to raise awareness about eye health during Diabetes Awareness Week. At the launch, I was deeply moved by a young woman who had lost her vision quite rapidly due to diabetic eye disease, explaining how she foolishly took her sight for granted. As I listened to her bravely urge all people with diabetes to get their eyes checked regularly, I was motivated to do all I could to prevent this happening to other Australians – both young and old.

At the end of the day it’s all about making a tangible difference to people’s lives and my job enables me to do this. It’s often challenging, but rewarding in so many ways. Why am I still here? Because I am still inspired. Rarely do you get the opportunity to work towards a truly achievable goal like the elimination of avoidable blindness – how inspirational is that!

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About the Author

CEO Jennifer Gersbeck in a cafe

Jennifer Gersbeck

Jennifer Gersbeck is Director of Global Partnerships and Advocacy at The Fred Hollows Foundation, and previously CEO of Vision 2020 Australia. Jennifer has been involved in a wide range of social marketing campaigns aimed at raising awareness, changing behaviour and influencing key decision makers. Jennifer has qualifications in Political Science and Business Marketing, is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, and has worked extensively in the health and community services sector. Read more by this author →

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