Who We Are
The Daybreak Vision Project is a non-profit organization, a community and a movement. Our mission is to bring sight-restoring cataract surgery to those in greatest need. Daybreak describes the moment light first penetrates the darkness of night. For us, this name represents the moment when a previously-blind patient first realizes their sight has been restored. This daybreak moment is pure joy and its impact is impossible to quantify. In an instant, sight, life, and hope have all been restored.
The Daybreak Vision Project was founded in 2020 by John Welling, Adam Schanz, Jon Mangum, and Jason Wernli: lifelong friends with deep ties to Africa. Founder Bios.
day·break - The moment light first penetrates the darkness of night
By John Welling, MD
The Daybreak Moment
I first witnessed this daybreak moment in 2005, as a first-year medical student. I came across a documentary featuring Drs. Geoffrey Tabin and Sanduk Ruit performing cataract surgery in a remote Himalayan Village. Some of the villagers had been blind for more than 10 years. After undergoing a surgery that took only 10 minutes, these patients stepped out of the shadows and into the light of a new day. I felt like I was watching a miracle. I knew this was what I wanted to do.
Ten years later, after completing my ophthalmology residency and first year of fellowship training, I had the opportunity to spend a year working with Dr. Tabin as his international fellow in Nepal, Ghana, and Ethiopia. I witnessed firsthand the impact of blindness on individuals, families, and communities–poverty, loss of independence, diminished overall health, depression, and deterioration of family relationships. I saw the load borne by the caregivers; children and grandchildren sidelined from their own pursuits while caring for blind parents and grandparents, sometimes for many years. And, in some cases, I saw the suffering of those who carried the burden of blindness completely alone.
Over the course of the international fellowship, I was grateful to benefit from the mentorship of Dr. Tabin, Dr. Ruit, Dr. Matt Oliva, Dr. Reeta Gurung, Dr Deepak Khadka, Dr Seth Lartey, Dr. Bo Wiafe, and others. Through numerous high-volume cataract outreaches in a wide variety of settings, I learned how to deliver high-quality, low-cost eye care in some of the highest need places on earth.
Though every outreach was unique, drawing in blind patients from different countries, cultures, and languages, there was one great constant. No matter the setting, the exhilaration of sight restoration–the daybreak moment–was pure magic
I will always remember one particular patient at my first high-volume outreach. Dr Ruit, Dr Oliva, and I were operating together at Pullahari, a beautiful Buddhist Monastery set high in the foothills overlooking Kathmandu, Nepal. One of the patients brought in for surgery was an elderly man with a facial deformity and dense, blinding cataracts in both eyes. He sat in the corner staring blankly into the commotion of patients, nurses, and volunteers that surrounded him. He caught my attention–even among so many people, he looked so alone.
On the morning after surgery, I watched a staff member carefully lead this man, with patches over both eyes, to the front steps of the monastery, along with a hundred other bandaged patients. Everyone looked on as Dr Ruit peeled the tape and gauze from his eyes. The moment the light hit his eyes, it was as if electricity passed through his entire body. He burst into a broad smile and started pointing all around. I captured the photo below, just as he pointed directly at me. This man’s life was changed forever. One hundred patients later, the atmosphere was absolutely euphoric. It was mass joy like I had never experienced and I couldn’t get enough.
After completion of the international fellowship, I had the privilege of serving for four years as the Country Medical Coordinator for the Himalayan Cataract Project in Ghana. This was one of the most rewarding opportunities of my life. Along with key collaborators, we helped support the work of the National Cataract Outreach Program - an association of Ghanaian surgeons focused on eliminating the backlog of cataract blindness. Together with our dedicated Ghanaian partners, we increased local capacity, expanded infrastructure, and provided thousands of sight-restoring cataract surgeries during this period.
The friendships I developed with the Ghanaian surgeons, residents, nurses and other team members are among my most treasured. The outreach teams are a beautiful blend of individuals from diverse cultural, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. One of the most remarkable aspects of an outreach is how a group of previous strangers can work long days (and often long nights) together so seamlessly when inspired by an important cause. The intensity of the experience–the high stakes, the exhaustion, the exhilaration–is such that, by the end of the week, teammates are transformed from strangers to friends, forever bonded by an experience that will never be forgotten.
Above: A patient who has just had patches removed from her eyes, the morning after sight-restoringcataract surgery. Himalayan Cataract Outreach, Cape Coast, Ghana.
Left: Dr John Welling and Dr Akwasi Ahmed first met when Dr Ahmed was a senior resident at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital. Over the past 7 years they have worked together on numerous outreaches and become close friends. Dr Ahmed is the Medical Director for the Daybreak Vision Project in Ghana, as well as a Daybreak Board Member. He plays a key role in the strategic planning and execution of Daybreak's programs in Ghana.
Below: High Volume Cataract Outreach, Himalayan Cataract Project, Bolgatanga, Ghana.
The dream for the Daybreak Vision Project began many years ago.
In 2001, Adam Schanz and I were serving together as volunteers for our church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Over the course of two years, we shared some of the most challenging and also some of the most rewarding experiences of our lives. We came face to face and heart to heart with a world of suffering and struggle. We witnessed the triumph of the human spirit over staggering adversity. We came to love the incredible people that we served–a love that lives on today. In the process, Adam and I became fast friends and brothers and have remained so over the past 20-plus years.
It was in the townships of Johannesburg that Adam and I first talked about the possibility of returning to Africa one day to do something meaningful together. Even as we pursued our respective career paths (while I pursued my medical training, Adam founded several successful home security and technology companies) and became busy with our own families, this desire remained strong and was a recurring topic of conversation over the years. In 2018, I invited Adam to join me for a high-volume cataract outreach in Keta, Ghana. He and the volunteers he brought–empIoyees from one of his companies–helped the team restore sight to more than 400 people that week. It was exhilarating to share the joy of sight restoration with Adam for the first time. Adam joined me for two more outreaches over the next two years, each time adding tremendous energy, insight and value.
I met Jon Mangum the summer before third grade when my family moved to Ohio. Over the next ten years we did nearly everything together: athletics, scouting, youth group, and summer high adventures. In college we were roommates and lacrosse teammates. My friendship with Jon has been a huge blessing and one of the great constants in my life.
As an undergraduate, Jon traveled across Africa with a microfinance accelerator he co-founded, implementing microlending programs as a pathway to self-reliance. After receiving his MBA from Harvard Business School, Jon spent five years working in Johannesburg, where he opened emerging markets for Dow Chemical and worked on clean water projects across West Africa. In 2016, my family and I visited Jon and his family in Johannesburg. We discussed his water projects and my cataract outreach experiences. We talked about how awesome it would be to collaborate on a social impact project one day - something we could build together.
Color and Clarity
In 2019, I invited Jon to join Adam and I for an HCP cataract outreach in Cape Coast, Ghana. Together, with a dedicated team of Ghanaian surgeons and nurses we were able to provide 740 sight-restoring cataract surgeries. Every morning as the patches came off, the energy and joy were electric. To share these moments with Jon and Adam–life-long friends with deep ties to Africa–was beyond special. I think we all knew we were on to something.
After the outreach concluded, Adam, Jon, and I took a day to decompress with the team at Busua Beach before returning to the States. We talked about some of the most moving patient stories and interactions we had experienced. There was Kwame, who had been blind for FIFTEEN years, but the day after surgery was reading the text on our t-shirts and looking around to find the faces of his loved ones. There was Celia, who had been blind for 2 years, who, from the moment her patch was removed, kept exclaiming “I see you!! I see you! Thank God!”. There was Constance, a woman who had been blind in both eyes for many years. When her patches were removed, she started waving her arms, and shouting “Thank you God! Thank you God!” and then, waving to the doctors and volunteers in front of her, she proclaimed, “you are ALL my brothers!!”
There, on Busua Beach, Jon, Adam and I talked for the first time in concrete terms about the possibility of starting our own eye care initiative. The need was tremendous - we knew there were 200,000 cataract blind in Ghana alone, with many, many more visually impaired. These were people full of potential, with lives to lead and families to take care of - people like Kwame, Celia, and Constance. Hearing their stories, and witnessing their shear joy upon receiving their site, we felt as sense of urgency. We knew that, despite the availability of sight-restoring surgery, without a consistent and systematic effort, many thousands would live and die blind. Perhaps this was our opportunity to do something truly meaningful together, in a place and for a people that we loved.
A few months later the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe. It was a time of global concern and uncertainty. It looked like it could be many months before we'd be able to return to Ghana. Gradually, out of the upheaval and loss that occurred for so many during this period, some silver linings began to appear. For me, homeschooling and diminished work hours let to an abundance of unexpected time with my wife and kids. The change of pace also gifted me more quiet time - more reading and thinking time than I had had in years.
One book that influenced me during this period was Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. McKeown advocates an approach to life and leadership which challenges the reader to determine “where [your] highest point of contribution lies”, then make “the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at [your] highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.” This invitation to discover my “highest point of contribution” really captured my attention. I thought about how it applied to my relationship with God and to my role as a husband and father. It also led me to consider how I could make my highest contribution in my professional and international work.
My thoughts turned back to the conversations Jon, Adam and I had shared on Busua Beach. Over the last several years, this dream had begun to take on more color, and come into sharper focus. To my surprise, I was starting to feel that perhaps someday was now. A proverb I had heard years before kept coming back to my mind - The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. All three of us were turning 40 years old within the span of a year and a half. We likely had 25 years or so to build something. If our goal was to bring sight-restoring cataract surgery to as many people as possible over that time frame, then why wait?
The prospect of stepping away from my role with the Himalayan Cataract Project weighed heavily on me. Geoff Tabin, Matt Oliva, and the entire HCP team had played such an important role in my life and had become like extended family to me. Geoff had mentored me for 15 years - since my first year in medical school. Matt had brought me on as his practice partner in the United States and has been the best partner someone could ask for. I had worked closely with the HCP staff and partners in Ghana over the last 5 years and had been happy and fulfilled in that role with this tremendous organization.
However, once the possibility of starting Daybreak had been planted in my mind, it seemed to lay down roots of its own. While the timing and circumstances had been unexpected, Daybreak began to feel more and more like the opportunity Jon, Adam and I had long discussed - the chance to make our highest point of contribution, together. I reached out to Adam and Jon and told them what I had been thinking and feeling. They expressed their support and willingness to move forward.
Around this time we brought on another key partner, Jason Wernli. Jon, Jason and I had been college lacrosse teammates and more recently, Jon and Jason had founded a software company together. A visionary entrepreneur with a passion for people and a huge heart, we knew Jason would add tremendous value to our founding team. Jason exceeded these expectations in every way, taking on a crucial role in Daybreak’s conception, development and growth.
I was grateful for HCP’s gracious response as I let them know about my intentions to start a new eye care non-profit with Adam, Jon, and Jason. I was particularly grateful that Matt and Geoff accepted honorary seats on our Medical Advisory Board, given the impact they have had on my life and career. We were able to chart a path forward where both HCP and Daybreak, operating as distinct entities, could work in coordination toward the shared objective of sight restoration in Ghana. In June of 2021, Daybreak and HCP partnered on our first joint outreach together in Koforidua, Ghana. This collaborative effort also represented our first opportunity to return to Ghana in the wake of the COVID pandemic, after several cancelled trips. It felt so good to be reunited with our Ghanaian partners and to help move the work of sight restoration forward once again.
Dr John Welling, with Dr Oscar Debrah, Country Representative for the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP) in Ghana. Joint Daybreak-HCP outreach in Koforidua, Ghana, June 2021.
Jason Wernli, Daybreak Co-founder and Chief Stewardship Officer with Gifty Boafo, Senior Administrator with Ghana Health Services and the National Cataract Outreach Program, Koforidua, Ghana.
Watching another human being step out of the shadows of blindness and into the light of a new day has been one of the most joyful experiences of my life. Collaborating with life-long friends to bring sight-restoring surgery to those in greatest need has only amplified that joy. I consider myself profoundly blessed for this opportunity and am so grateful to Adam, Jon and Jason for their passion and partnership.
We are grateful to the indispensable contributions of the Daybreak leadership team who give freely of their time and expertise to bring sight to the blind. We are grateful for the partnership of our dedicated Ghanaian colleagues:the doctors, nurses, administrators, and staff who move this work forward day in and day out. We are grateful for the community of generous Daybreak donors who empower us to reach those in greatest need. Most of all, we are thankful for the trust of our patients who place their sight and lives in our hands. We are honored to serve them.