Flying eye hospital.

International Women's Day: Penn Staples helped Orbis take off

February 2021

To mark International Women’s Day 2021 we’re celebrating some of the incredible women at the heart of the Orbis story - women whose leadership, passion and expertise has helped millions of people access quality eye care. This is Penn Staples – former Director of External Affairs in the 1980s.

Born in Connecticut, Penn spent her formative years in the UK before moving to New York in the late 70s to pursue her career in communications.

In 1981, she was recruited as Orbis Director of External Affairs by then Executive Director Oliver Foot after he recognized her talents for her music clients at Rogers and Cowan Public Relations – most notably turning around the fortunes of the Beach Boys when they were banned from playing the July 4th concert on the National Mall by Secretary of the Interior James Watt.

Penn Staples became Orbis's Director of External Affairs in 1981

Oliver was no stranger to the importance of clear communications, having worked himself as Orbis Director of External Affairs before advancing to become its Executive Director. He knew that Orbis needed someone whose full focus would be to ensure accurate press coverage of Orbis in the field and to grow global recognition of our work.

After replacing Oliver as Director of External Affairs in 1981, Penn went on to visit 80 countries and close to 115 cities. The Orbis aircraft at that time was a DC 8 – donated by United Airlines – one of the very last in service. Those were the early days of Orbis: “We had a plane, an office in New York, a Warehouse in Houston and a truly amazing team of medical professionals” Penn told us.


Interview: Holly Peppe Former Orbis Director of External Affairs

The DC-8 Flying Eye Hospital

Huge crowds would turn up at the airports and hospitals wanting treatment, such was the overwhelming need for eye care. I recall one time when our team of ophthalmologists had to clamber out of the window of a partner hospital to leave the building.

Penn Staples

Former Orbis Director of External Affairs

To remedy the situation, Penn traveled in advance of the team working with local media to ensure accurate messaging around the nature of each mission. But there was more than inaccurate media coverage at stake - funding for Orbis’s work was always in short supply.

We were in Tunisia in 1984 and were almost out of money. Then Oliver and I had a brainwave, why couldn’t we start to leverage the notoriety of the plane to build both in-kind and cash revenues for its work – everything from hotel sponsorships, team logistics, medical equipment and overall project sponsorship – new partnerships that would benefit both parties.

Penn visited an incredible 80 countries with Orbis

Thanks to Oliver’s leadership and Penn’s field work we were soon bringing on global partners to sponsor our projects making our work sustainable. Not long after that, FedEx came on board and would ultimately go on to donate our most recent aircraft, the modified MD-10 third generation Flying Eye Hospital.

Penn expands on the FedEx relationship: “The FedEx partnership started after it purchased Flying Tigers, a cargo line that grew out of a legendary group of pilots who served in WWII with the American Volunteer Group. Those guys were amazing – beloved to all of us. We marveled at their tales of the ‘old days’ - how they would navigate by the stars, their treacherous adventures ‘flying the Hump” during the nearly four year India-China airlift. Orbis’s relationship with FedEx has continued to grow and flourish from there”.

Watch: a tribute to former Executive Director Oliver Foot

Following her travels, Penn returned to London to help establish Orbis’s first global affiliate. Her work there set the frame for a further seven fundraising offices worldwide.

"It’s incredible to see where Orbis is now - to see all the lives they’re transforming. To know that Orbis started with David Payton’s prescient and brave idea to become what it today is so wonderful. And for me, working with Oliver and my Orbis colleagues was an experience of a lifetime. They were and remain some of the finest people I've ever met.

But I know that success is only the tip of the iceberg. Orbis and the whole eye care community have much work left to do. There are 1.1 billion people living with visual impairment, including blindness. 90% of these people suffer needlessly given that we have preventative or medical interventions that can restore their vision.

"The two main causes of avoidable blindness in the world today – cataracts and trachoma – are both curable with a relatively simple surgical procedure costing no more than $35! Dig deep, give now – your gift will make all the difference to those whose lives are needlessly limited by visual impairment”.

Everyone at Orbis, would like to express our gratitude to Penn, without your bravery, ambition and industrious leadership - millions of people would not be able to see the world today.

This International Women's Day, read more about the Orbis women whose leadership is building a brighter future for millions of people living with avoidable blindness.

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