International Agency of the Month—Helen Keller International

Date Posted: 03/05/2015

HKI logo

By Maribel Steel, VisionAware International Correspondent and peer advisor

On March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day. It seems very fitting to showcase Helen Keller International who are doing tremendous work worldwide. CEO and President, Kathy Spahn shares their story and combined vision as they celebrate their centenary year.

Helen Keller International: Vision and Mission

Helen Keller International (HKI) is headquartered in New York City. HKI works in 21 African and Asian countries, as well as the United States. The agency's mission is to save the sight and lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. HKI combats the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition by establishing programs based on evidence and research in vision, health and nutrition.

picture of Kathy Spahn

Kathy Spahn – a Personal Story

"For the past ten years I have been President and CEO of Helen Keller International. In this role, I’m responsible for all its operations, programs, finances, fundraising and communication activities. Prior to joining HKI, I was President and Executive Director of Orbis, a global non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of blindness in the developing world. As someone who struggled to see the blackboard in 6th grade because I was so very near-sighted and teased by my classmates about it, I feel a special affinity for the struggles and aspirations of the blind and visually-impaired."

"In my work with HKI, I have the great pleasure of travelling to the field quite often to see firsthand, how our services prevent both blindness and malnutrition and how they are delivered and received by the beneficiaries. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing someone whose life has been changed thanks to our work! We have an amazing staff, and I am constantly humbled by their skill, dedication and compassion as they work to bring hope and opportunity back to the lives of so many millions of mothers and children in need."

The scope of HKI and the Vitamin A-Supplementation Program

Helen Keller International was founded in 1915 by Helen Keller and George Kessler, a survivor of the Lusitania, to help veterans blinded by mustard gas during World War I. The scope of our work has since expanded to provide a range of services to prevent and treat blindness, including high quality, affordable cataract surgeries and free prescription eyeglasses for school children right here in the US. HKI's flagship "Vitamin A-Supplementation" program using orange sweet potatoes addresses the number one cause of childhood blindness: vitamin A deficiency. Last year alone, HKI delivered over 85 million high-dosage vitamin A supplements to at-risk children in Asia and Africa. Our groundbreaking work in vitamin A has been our “lens” into the larger problem of malnutrition—the single biggest contributor to child mortality.

child holding piece of sweet potato

Working Towards Preventing Blindness

The agency has been internationally recognized for the impact of HKI's programs, not only on preventing blindness, but also on improving nutrition for millions of poor and disadvantaged children and their families. In addition to these eye health and nutrition programs, HKI works in the cross-cutting area known as "neglected tropical diseases" which includes the two blinding diseases of trachoma and river blindness, as well as parasitic worms that interfere with good nutrition. A key aspect of HKI's approach is working closely with governments to help build the capacity of their national health systems and transfer know-how and technologies so that they can continue the work after HKI's involvement ends.

What HKI Is Doing About Diabetes

Read about raising awareness about diabetic retinopathy in Indonesia.

hki eye health

Funding of Services Is a Challenge

All services are free or low cost for the beneficiaries. HKI relies on the generosity of individuals, corporations, foundations and governments to carry out programs around the world. HKI has a growing and reliable donor base but as the demand for programs grow, the need to find additional sources of funding is paramount to help more people in need. According to Spahn, "Raising enough funds to meet the growing need and take our proven programs to scale is a constant challenge, as is the need to raise necessary funds so that our infrastructure can keep pace with our growth. Another big challenge is that, by definition, we serve the world’s most vulnerable which means that often our services need to reach people in very remote locations or people who, for other reasons, are disconnected from society and government services."

HKI relies on both traditional solutions – such as 4-wheel drive vehicles capable of navigating treacherous routes where roads don’t exist and new technologies, such as using handheld devices to gather data and share information.In fact, mobile technology is being used in responding to Ebola in Sierra Leone and was crucial in the success of a vaccination campaign in northern Cote d’Ivoire. Both types of solutions require additional funding to meet their targets.

Celebrating 100 Years of HKI in 2015

Kathy Spahn: "This year is pivotal for us as we turn 100 years old. We have to reflect on what we have achieved over the years, assess the needs for progress and improvements, and work to secure firmly our ability to continue to deliver sight- and life-saving services to those who need them around the world. We have so many innovative programs that could be expanded to reach even more of the world’s most vulnerable families. I see this year as one in which we can achieve greater recognition, raise more operating funds and be of greater service to millions more people in need."

My Personal Commitment

"As my own personal commitment to marking our centennial and hopefully bringing donor and public attention to our work, I have committed to climb Mount Kilimanjaro this July. As Helen Keller once said, 'Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.'"

helen keller sitting on steps during international trip

Maribel Steel: Our special thanks to Kathy Spahn, President and CEO of HKI for her personal contribution to this feature article and our sincere wishes that the challenge of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro brings much personal reward and further support to the global vision of HKI. I would also like to thank Karine Russell (Development and Special Events Associate) and Yves Sorokobi (Communications Officer) at HKI for their collaborative work and warm responses to my requests for this month’s feature: and finally, to all who share the journey.

"When we do the best that we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another." Helen Keller

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