giving back

Peter Stewart was awarded an OAM for services to the international community in the provision of eye health programs having been a regular participant to the East Timor Eye Program and a founding member of the Sumba Eye Program over 12 years.

The sumba eye program

Sumba Logo.png

 Donations + information 


Sumba is a large island of approximately 11,000 sq kms and a population of about 670,000 divided into East Sumba, 200,00, and West Sumba, 470,000. There is no Optometric or Ophthamological presence on the island. It is part of an area called Nusa Tengara Timor which comprises East and west Timor, Sumba and Flores, and is located north west of Darwin.

Although Sumba is part of Indonesia, it is a very poor island both in mineral and agricultural wealth and most people live a subsistence lifestyle, eat today and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. It has a unique culture with a warrior background and its religious beliefs are mainly Animist and Christian, with the Muslim population representing about 4%.

The Island was often called “The Sandalwood Island” because of the sandalwood tree which was predominant there before exploitation of its wood for perfumes.


The 3 founding members of The Sumba Eye Program, Dr Mark Ellis AM, Peter Lewis OAM and Peter Stewart OAM had been going to East Timor for 7 years on another project called The East Timor Eye Program.
In 2006 because of continuing unrest at that time in East Timor, our trip was cancelled and The Sumba Eye Program (SEP), was born.

The Royal Australian College of Surgeons (RACS) had funding for 1 year from AusAid and Dr Mark Ellis (team Leader) Peter Lewis and myself both Optometrists, organized an eye team of 3 surgeons, 3 optometrists, 2 nurses and a RACs administrator to go to the town of Waingapu , East Sumba, Indonesia. A chance meeting on the plane with Dr Claus Bogh, a world leading expert in Malaria and the director of Health for the Sumba Foundation (local NGO) led to us establishing the SEP in West Sumba the following year. The Sumba Foundation is a philanthropic organization established by 2 American surfers, both successful businessmen, who wanted to give something back to the People of Sumba.

They set up a luxury resort at Nihiwatu, a surfing meca (best left-hand break in the world and recently voted the best ecological hotel in the world twice.) and used it as a conduit to establish their foundation which now is involved in Malaria control, malnutrition programs, sustainable farming practices, clean water, biodiesel production and independent district medical clinics.

Note that the Sumba Foundation and the Sumba Eye program are completely separate entities, we just use their logistics on the ground without such, the difficulties would be significant. The Foundation supports us by covering the core team’s basic in country expenses (flights to and from Bali-Sumba, translators, transport, accommodation and lunch). The team is responsible for all other expenses, Australia/Bali flights, medical and equipment needs and glasses for the program. This amounts to over $35,000-$40,000 per trip with over half of the funds required for the 100 surgical cataract packs, drugs and ready-made glasses.

The team has been made up of:

Dr Mark Ellis AM-Ophthalmologist-Team Leader
Ophthalmologists , Dr David Workman OAM (7 trips), Dr Johnathon Ruddle (5 trips), Dr Terrence Ong and Dr David Van Der Straatten, Dr Ben Clarke and this trip Dr Gus Clark have participated.
Peter Stewart OAM-Optometrist-Founder

Peter Lewis OAM-Optometrist-Founder
Norm Russo, Janine Hobson, Andrew Thomas and Chris Katapodis Rowena Beckinham, Liz Vidor and Alison Steer-Optometrists-funded by Optometry Giving Sight (OGS)

2 Eye theatre Nurses. Lead Nurse Alison Plain OAM and Virginia Holloway, plus 4 others over the years. Ancillary to this, we have taken 2-3 self-funded volunteers who are an integral part of the program and a Rotary self-funded volunteer each year, this year President Thelma Hutchinson from Rotary Glenferrie. To date over 45 people have been involved and trips are twice yearly.

The SEP has seen over 25,000 people and conducted over 1,500 cataract and other procedures. And dispensed over 20,000 pairs of glasses. Funding has come from many sources -Rotary, Optometry giving sight, private benefactors, many fundraising events and the Optical industry at large. RACS have provided us with free administrative assistance and tax deductabilty status. Equipment has been donated over time, 2 Operating microscopes, A scan, sterilizers, a Tango laser for YAG and SLT procedures, 8 trial sets, 5 slit lamps, retinal cameras and extras, everything one would expect to see in an Australian Practice. The level of care provided is second to none in a developing environment.

The aim of the program has been to train and establish local Eye Care Nurses (ECN’S). on the Island able to conduct refractive examinations and identify and treat various diseases. Our nurses have been the recipient of training in Bali with the John Fawcett Foundation and 2 have been brought to Australia for mentoring and instruction. We also aimed to involve local Ophthalmologists to partner with the ECN’s in delivering full eyecare to Sumba. We have had the involvement of the Ophthalmology department Hasinudin University-Makassar over 7 years now and this last trip, Ophthalmologists from Udayana Uni Bali. This whole process has taken longer than we had hoped because an element of trust and respect had to be developed with the local community as well as the hurdles of dealing with a sovereign government and its own health system. This has largely been overcome now.

While the operations are free, and all sunglasses dispensed are free, we do charge a nominal fee of 20,000 rupiah to the local villagers for each pair of glasses. The reason- no one respects freebies so the “fee” gives a sense of ownership and respect. At the end of each trip the team has donated the money received back to the Community through the Sumba Foundation, to date in the form of a Nikon microscope for their clinics to detect malaria, a solar panel to power one of the district clinics, 4 motorbikes for our 4 nurses , backpacks and helmets, and I pads and computers for use on their outreach trips.

Below is a report on our last visit to Sumba -Aug 2019. Just back from a rather eventful trip to Sumba. 

On arrival Sunday 4th Aug we were asked to meet with the local Health minister as a serious matter had arisen. We also had in attendance 2 Intel personnel from Jakarta. It transpired that previous to our visit, a Polish team of people had been in country, had no Authorization and proceeded to conduct surveys, data collection etc which was published without Government consent. Jakarta took a dim view of this and looked at all International teams working in Indonesia. With us they took a sledgehammer approach telling us that we could not work, teach or otherwise impart knowledge in any way with the Indonesian people and if we did so then there was the very real possibility of being arrested. We also found out that we yet again did not have the correct paperwork to be in country. This was amusing as we have continually asked about this to make sure everything was in order. Even the local minister had no idea what was required. Apparently we found out that the local Buparti had not answered Jakarta questions to their liking so they sent down 7 Intel guys to sort this out.

There was much embarrassment at local and regional level at the way we had been treated given we have been in the open for 12 years with many visits ie twice per year. Our local Dr's were also in the firing line for operating outside their jurisdiction but some paperwork solved that issue. As we pointed out, the Dr's would need us to set up as they use our equipment and that they would also need our nurses to handle the sterilising procedures otherwise they could not operate. After many phone calls this was agreed upon. So the upshot was we had a full team who were in effect redundant as we were not allowed to proceed with teaching, training or anything else.


The upside to all this and this must be looked at very positively. Because of our training over such a long period of time, our Eyecare nurses were able to conduct the program by themselves and saw over 1400 patients in 4 1/2 days. Our local surgeons saw 55 cataract cases. This proved to us that we have effectively achieved our aim of local people looking after local people. Despite an enforced handover we were thrilled that our nurses rose to the occasion and did a stirling job. What is the future now for the Sumba Eye Program. The reality is we will not be conducting further trips until the paperwork requirements are signed sealed and delivered. We are planning to go back next August if all can be completed to our satisfaction with no threat and the ability to continue in our full capacity of teaching and mentoring.

The team will be a much reduced number per visit which isn't a bad thing as if it goes correctly we can do more trips with limited personnel thereby maximising our teaching impact. We had a very constructive meeting with an Essilor foundation rep who run in country programs to establish optical stores and thus employment. They provide the set up and basic refraction training, provide support and equipment and then assist the recipient, with further training over 3 years to become a qualified dispenser. One of our interpretors, Franki Djarmi has been with us since
inception and we recognised him as a perfect candidate for such a role. He is skilled in refraction already, is quite entreprenerial and if the costs are not too onerous, then we will recommend him for the position. A further example of local people helping others.


We have also recognised that one of the ECN's, Sister Sani Mutiari, wanted to extend her training and we placed her under the care of our 2 theatre nurses this trip to learn the skills required to run an eye theatre from sterilizing to instrument handling to drug set up etc. She took to the role with great enthusiasm such that we are going to get her trained at Hasinudin University with Dr Adelina as her sponsor.


A lot of facets of what we set out to achieve 12 years ago have been realised and we are grateful to all the support given so far from Rotary, the Optical industry and beyond. Do we need further support. The answer is Yes. We will still be supporting our nurses to do further training courses, We hope to continue our lecture program in Makassar and we will be continuing to service the Island of Sumba but in a very different capacity. So, to all who have helped us, you can be immeasurably proud. In true Rotary tradition, a dollar given is a dollar 100% fully passed on these aid programs are not for everyone. You are taken out of your comfort zone and exposed to much that is confronting-food, living, and culture but the goodwill you engender with the locals and the satisfaction that you achieve by doing so is immense. It’s a team effort and while we don’t change the world, we are privileged to be able to offer a little back to the community.