Niklas Huppmann from Shades of Love on the mission to end mountain-region blindness
We spoke to Shades of Love founder Niklas Huppmann about the history behind the organization and what the prospects are for the future. Shades of Love collects and donates sunglasses — used or new — to people living in remote mountain regions, where exposure to UV rays is high, and so is the risk of early blindness.
How did the inspiration for Shades of Love come about?
"The inspiration to found Shades Of Love came as my Co-Founder Jürgen travelled to the Himalayas and discovered that a large proportion of the locals suffer from milky eyes, blindness and associated eye diseases. People at the age of 35 were unable to work because of their inability to see —something no one ever thinks about. It was obvious that no one wore or even heard of eye protection, and hence we came up with the idea to collect sunglasses in Munich, Germany.”
It’s often the case that, when people receive physical or medical help, other aspects of their lives improve as well, such as their personal and social lives. Over the time you’ve been helping people, is that something Shades of Love has experienced?
“We definitely observed the social and physical impact that comes about through the protection of eye sight. We have seen that the ability to keep working, which is existential to people living in these remote regions, has been prolonged through our work. This results in more stable living conditions, overall happiness, of course, but also in the ability for some kids to go to school and play. Children necessarily have to compensate for the inability of their parents to work on the fields due to the loss of eyesight. We give our best to prevent this from happening.
It's many different aspects of life that we have an impact on in some way or another. We also claim that we prevent ancient Himalayan and Andean culture from dying. Due to the increasingly worsening harm of the UV rays in these altitudes many people are reluctant to settle to lower valleys and cities — usually unwillingly. They are proud people. The heirs of generations living in these harsh landscapes. They have to give up aspects of their unique culture by migrating "away from the sun." By granting a better life and procurement of health under the sun, we believe that we halt this involuntary migration to a considerable extent.
Overall, we help mothers see their children better, or longer, farmers in Peru be able to take care of their crops, or Himalayan yak herders take care of their livestock. It's very simple and unorthodox, but it makes people happy and healthy.”
Can you tell us about the eye surgeons Shades of Love partners with and how they came on board?
“We cooperate with Eye Operation Camps throughout the region. They cure up to 200 people from their cataracts every day and make people see again. It's beautiful. We cooperate because we want to take complete care of the problem. Besides prevention through sunglasses, this necessarily involves curing, too. Usually, these camps are set up by local monks and doctors. Over time we made friends with these doctors and monks and it made sense for both sides to collaborate. This August we are planning to set up our own operation camp in Ladakh, India. The gratitude and emotions you can witness after the patients can suddenly see again is wonderful and really shows you how meaningful our work is over there.”
How do the ambassadors help shape Shades of Love and communicate its mission?
“Our ambassadors are basically carrying into the world. From Australia, via Saudi-Arabia, to Canada, we engage with a diverse collective of motivated volunteers. They start collection initiatives, set up fundraising campaigns and simply spread the word in their region. We always ask of them to be creative and come up with ways to collect donations. We believe that they know their network and region best and hence should be in charge of how to approach them. Sometimes they arrange radio interviews, or get us in newspapers and magazines in their respective countries. But overall, their main work is to collect financial donations. It's cool to find our project description in French airline magazines, or Jordanian supermarket chains. That's all due to the work of our ambassadors.”
What has been the most memorable or rewarding part of this journey for you?
“The most memorable part of my work at Shades Of Love is definitely the distribution missions and the encounters with the locals. It's the coolest thing for me to depart on these adventurous missions into regions where potentially no tourist has ever set foot in and ultimately help the people that live there to enjoy a more livable life. Me and one of my best friends were in Bolivia, for example, right at Lake Titicaca and distributed about 20 sunglasses to a family that was farming all together. In the end we gave a pair to the eldest lady there (she must've been like 60, 70 years old) and told her about what we do. She started to cry, smile and grabbed our hands and expressed her gratitude in a way I will never forget. She obviously knew best why we do what we do. We make strangers all over the world happy. We are being invited for dinners in the middle of nowhere, getting people to overcome their initial fear of encountering white, foreign people (really!) and leave tangible traces wherever we go.”
"Overall, we help mothers see their children better, or longer, farmers in Peru be able to take care of their crops, or Himalayan yak herders take care of their livestock. It's very simple and unorthodox, but it makes people happy and healthy." - Niklas
What does the future look like for Shades of Love?
“We always say that the next year will be the most exciting. And again, we believe this to be the case. We have so many plans. First, we want to set up our own Eye Operation Camp in India. Secondly, we discovered that photokeratitis (snow blindness) in the polar regions of Canada and Greenland make people suffer extensively. Hence, we really want to deplore a mission there. Thirdly, we are currently producing a high-quality documentary with an Italian film team. Lastly, we want to start working with governments directly and negotiate cooperations. We essentially contribute to the health of many in poor countries, leading to an increased economic and social output and hence wish to receive custom reliefs, visa grants and even extensive financial support in return from the respective Health Ministries. In other words, we want to expand our project to new countries and be able to help even more people all over the world. I hope that by the end of my time at university, we will have provided one million sunglasses in the Himalayas, Andes, Karakoram, Arctic and Tian Shan.”