2020 Humanitarian of the Year Award

By Paolena Comouche

Content Writer/Special Projects


In 2014, SEE launched an annual Humanitarian of the Year Award in honor of World Sight Day. This award recognizes the outstanding dedication and achievement of volunteer ophthalmologists and partner organizations that are committed to ending preventable blindness. This year, we are recognizing Dr. Debra Messina, traveling U.S. ophthalmologist; Dr. Sanjiv Desai, international host ophthalmologist; Dr. Steven Zelko, Santa Barbara Vision Care (SBVC) physician; and Goleta Valley Optical, community partner, as the 2020 recipients of the Humanitarian of the Year award. We are excited to formally acknowledge this groups’ devotion to providing humanitarian eyecare as their efforts have allowed us to transform hundreds of lives with the gift of sight.


Dr. Debra Messina – Traveling U.S. Ophthalmologist

Dr. Messina grew up on an Indian reservation, where she was greatly inspired by her father’s dedication to serving their community. As a child, she always knew she wanted to help communities like hers and give back to the world in any way she could.

Now residing in Long Island, New York, Dr. Messina dedicates her life to helping individuals in need. As the president of Sights of Health, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing vision restoration worldwide, Dr. Messina focuses on organizing and participating in comprehensive eye exam clinics in the United States. In addition to her domestic efforts, she also travels outside of the country as a volunteer SEE doctor to provide humanitarian eye care around the world.

Since beginning her partnership with SEE in 2012, Dr. Messina has led a total of 8 international sight-restoring programs in Ecuador and Peru. During these programs, she and her team saw over 4,800 individuals and restored sight to over 600 patients. We are delighted to have the opportunity to work with her and look forward to supporting her efforts with Sights on Health in the future!



Dr. Sanjiv Desai – International Host Ophthalmologist

Dr. Sanjiv Desai has been volunteering as an international host for SEE in Jodhpur, India, since 2007. Dr. Desai is an exemplary host doctor for SEE as he is extremely committed to providing humanitarian eye care services to as many patients as possible at his charitable hospital, Tarabai Desai Eye Hospital.

Not only does Dr. Desai invite doctors to India to train local staff and create a more sustainable eye care system in the area, but he also encourages doctors from around the world to travel to Jodhpur for humanitarian work. In the first two months of 2020 alone, Dr. Desai restored sight to 600 individuals with 4 different lead doctors from the U.S. Dr. Desai’s collaboration with SEE has allowed us to transform thousands of lives over the years, and we are proud to have him as a partner in our mission to eradicate preventable blindness.



Dr. Steven Zelko – Santa Barbara Vision Care Physician

Dr. Zelko has been volunteering with SEE for over 30 years! Over the years, SEE has referred hundreds of patients to be seen by Dr. Zelko at his private practice in Santa Barbara. He sees anywhere between 1 and 3 SEE patients a month and performs cataract or pterygium surgery on these patients at the Santa Barbara Surgery Center.

Dr. Zelko is highly loved and respected by all his patients. Throughout his time with SEE, Dr. Zelko has never turned down a patient and has always been willing to provide humanitarian eyecare services to those in need whenever he can. We are so appreciative of his ongoing commitment to serving our local community throughout his professional career as an ophthalmologist.



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Goleta Valley Optical – Community Partner

Goleta Valley Optical has been a committed partner of SEE since 2017. With their support, our Santa Barbara Vision Care (SBVC) program has provided countless pairs of eyeglasses to local patients in need. During the time that our SBVC clinics were closed because of COVID-19 regulations, Goleta Valley Optical was willing to continue supporting our community by providing virtual eyeglass vouchers for patients that would otherwise be unable to receive glasses. SEE is grateful for Goleta Valley Optical’s ongoing commitment to supporting our efforts of providing accessible eye care in our local communities, despite the many challenges brought upon by the pandemic.

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