We're all here for Ethiopia's first trail half marathon, the final event of a ten-day program called Accelerate Ethiopia, a sort of grand experiment in the evolving space known as adventure philanthropy. The trip has coincided with a high-volume eye clinic, run by the Himalayan Cataract Project, that has served 871 patients in Mekele, a 219,000-person city about 50 miles south.
HCP, along with Imagine1Day, a nonprofit based in Vancouver, British Columbia, that funds school projects, has brought in 11 donors, all but one from North America, who paid $10,000 each to come to Ethiopia, train and run with ultramarathoner Scott Jurek and several famous Ethiopian runners, volunteer at the eye camp, tour several I1D school projects, and, today, for the grand finale, compete with some of the fastest distance runners on the planet. The donations help cover the costs of the eye camp and will fund a library at one of I1D's schools.
Accelerate Ethiopia is the brainchild of 41-year-old Matt Oliva, an ophthalmologist from Ashland, Oregon, who has been volunteering at HCP's high-volume cataract surgery camps for more than a decade. Since forming HCP and building the first outpatient eye-surgery clinic in Kathmandu, surgeons Sankuk Ruit and Geoffrey Tabin—along with more than 100 HCP-trained doctors—have performed an estimated 266,000 surgeries. Their success has led to phenomenal growth for an organization that once sold itself through pamphlets stored in the trunk of Tabin's Honda Civic. In the past ten years, HCP's annual operating budget has grown from $500,000 to $5 million, and it now operates in a dozen countries throughout the Himalayas and sub-Saharan Africa.
Oliva, who is largely responsible for the group's efforts in Africa, is the heir apparent to HCP when Tabin and Ruit eventually retire. Oliva's Ethiopian partner, Dr. Tilahun Kiros, has a story that rivals anyone's. He grew up in Mekele and remembers watching people drop dead in the street during the famine. His family had food but never enough, and the experience made him want to be a doctor. After medical school, he did his postgraduate work in China, learning Mandarin on his own. Afterward, he read about the cataract technique developed by HCP cofounder Sanduk Ruit, and he taught himself to perform the crucial incision. He now performs 4,500 surgeries a year.
HCP and I1D work on vastly different scales, but the ultimate goal is the same: provide the resources to let locals do things on their own.
A Himalayan Cataract Project board member since 2007, Matt Oliva plays a crucial role in setting the clinical and programmatic direction of HCP's outreach in Ethiopia.
Oliva is an Associate Clinical Professor in the Division of International Ophthalmology at Casey Eye Institute and Oregon Health Sciences University. He is also a private practice ophthalmologist in Medford, Oregon.