Seva: A Healthy Dose of Technology and Culture

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The Seva Foundation, based in Berkeley but extended throughout the world, was born from the idea that, if the modern technology and medicine of the Western world joined with the ancient knowledge and cultures of the East, curable illnesses in Eastern countries could finally be wiped out.

In 1978, an eclectic group of individuals met in Michigan to help eradicate small pox in Eastern countries. Many members of this group then went on to establish Berkeley's Seva Foundation, whose primary goal was to help people who were blind from cataracts.

"Surveying blindness in Nepal was the first Seva function," says James O'Dea, executive director. "The survey showed that the vitamin A tablets that these people had been receiving to help their blindness was a total erroneous effort. It only helped a small percent of those inflicted."

Since the medicine that the people of Nepal received was not effective, members of the newly formed group decided to undertake a new project to address the problem.

"Seva decided to get out of the quick-fix mindset that many political foundations had," O'Dea says. "The foundation wanted to focus on human relations and how it could connect the inner being with the outer being."

With this in mind, Seva members began their work by creating a long-term, comprehensive program, using the United States as a model to be emulated in Eastern countries such as India, where 15 million people suffered from cataract blindness.

"We started work on treatable blindness by transferring Western technology to these countries," says Maria Porter, a Seva member and UC Berkeley alumna. "Once Seva was there, it began to train the indigenous people as doctors and nurses."

But how did these Western people, with their Western tools and medicine, convince the locals to accept these foreign techniques? After all, they already had their own culture, complete with medical practitioners and spiritual leaders.

"Seva eased the people into this transition by interfacing with the traditional healers," O'Dea says. "We wanted to interact and supplement them so that these healers could act as our go-betweens among the natives. If the healers trusted us, then they could assure the rest of the people that it was okay to receive treatment from us."

Once their efforts began, Seva sprouted into a very successful organization, he says. Through their efforts in India, locals were able to obtain the surgically implanted lens that Westerners usually receive after having cataracts removed. Although these lenses are expensive, most were donated to the organization. Later, India started producing the lens themselves for a much cheaper price compared to the United States, and India began to share the products with their neighbors.

"We are primarily an organization concerned with alleviating unnecessary suffering," Porter says. "So we figured that they deserved the same benefits that we have here."

After Seva began combatting blindness, they decided to take on another project. The project, which they are still working on today, is to help Lorelie DeCora, an advocate for diabetes awareness among Native Americans, in her struggle to fight the epidemic that has claimed the lives of many Native Americans throughout the country.

According to O'Dea, Native Americans are plagued with diabetes more than other groups.

"The highest amount of diabetes cases are among Native Americans," he says. "Young Native Americans were getting 'Type 2' diabetes, which usually only shows up in older, more fatty people, so we knew something was wrong."

DeCora wanted to help the Native American community by employing the same approach that Seva used in their fight against blindness in India. Now, many other foundations, such as the National Institute of Health, support the battle against diabetes and want to replicate Seva's model, he says.

While O'Dea feels Seva's work has been largely successful, he says there have been some Western organizations that opposed many of the group's efforts.

"When we began to transfer the surgically implanted eye lenses, many Western organizations asked why we were doing this when it was so expensive," O'Dea says. "They thought we should just stick to the cheapest methods, but we countered by saying that if those of us in the West deserved these higher technical methods, why didn't people in the East deserve them too?"

Despite the criticism, O'Dea says Seva will continue to formulate positive models in the fight for human rights.

"We must do more than oppose - we must propose," he says.


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