Founded in 1915 by Helen Keller and George Kessler, Helen Keller International (HKI) is among the oldest international nonprofit organizations devoted to preventing blindness and reducing malnutrition. Headquartered in New York City, HKI works in 22 countries: 13 in Africa, 8 in Asia-Pacific, and the United States.
HKI builds local capacity to combat blindness and malnutrition by establishing low-cost, sustainable programs. We also provide scientific and technical assistance, as well as invaluable research and data, to governments and international, regional, national and local organizations around the world to help expand current approaches and develop effective new approaches.
Some of the highlights in our journey toward a century of service include:
HKI traces its history to the life’s work of two extraordinary individuals, Helen Keller and George Kessler. Kessler was a wealthy New York merchant who survived the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. While recovering in London, he resolved to devote his remaining years to helping soldiers blinded in combat.
In November 1915, George and his wife Cora Parsons Kessler formally organize the British, French, and Belgian Permanent Blind Relief War Fund in Paris; George Raverat is head of European operations. The Kesslers ask Helen Keller, then 35 years old, for her support. She enthusiastically agrees, and the Permanent Blind Relief War Fund for Soldiers & Sailors of the Allies is incorporated in New York State in 1919. The Fund opens a school and workshop for the blind in Belgium; schools in France teach blind veterans how to make chairs and brushes, and how to knit.
Kessler dies in 1920 and New York lawyer William Nelson Cromwell succeeds him. Under his leadership, the organization develops a press that prints books and music in Braille. In 1925, the Permanent Blind Relief War Fund expands its focus to serve blind civilians as well as veterans, and changes its name to the American Braille Press for War and Civilian Blind. The press publishes books with a total of five million pages of Braille writing, five periodicals and various pieces of music. The output is distributed to libraries in France, England, the United States, Belgium, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and Yugoslavia.
The Press issues the first “talking book” in 1937, and makes plans to aid soldiers who would inevitably be blinded in World War II.
During the German occupation of France, the Press’ building is requisitioned by the German Admiralty and eventually by the Gestapo. After World War II, the Press affiliates with the American Foundation for the Blind. To reflect that close association, it changes its name to the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind (AFOB) and adds rehabilitation to its mission. In 1949, spearheaded by AFOB, an International Conference of Workers for the Blind, attended by representatives of the United Nations and UNESCO is held; landmark resolutions are passed that stress the need to give blind people the physical, psychological and technical means to take their place in society, with a particular emphasis on education.
AFOB continues to expand and starts programs in China, Iran, Israel and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
In 1966, at the First African Conference on Work for the Blind, discussions are held about taking steps to prevent blindness while continuing to help those already afflicted. Research intensifies in four primary causes of blindness: trachoma, onchocerciasis, cataract and nutritional blindness. AFOB begins to shift its efforts toward blindness prevention and treatment, and starts distributing vitamin A capsules in Asia-Pacific and Central America to combat blindness caused by malnutrition.
Dr. Alfred Sommer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducts groundbreaking studies in collaboration with AFOB on vitamin A deficiency (VAD), proving for the first time that controlling VAD decreases the risk of childhood mortality by as much as 34%, in addition to preventing blindness. Realizing that small expenditures can bring life-altering results, AFOB begins distributing vitamin A capsules on a massive scale to combat nutritional blindness. Onchocerciasis control programs begin in Africa. In 1977, the organization adopts the name of Helen Keller International to recognize the contributions of Helen Keller in helping not only the blind, but also those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged.
Tens of millions of children worldwide receive vitamin A capsules through HKI’s efforts, and the rate of childhood blindness around the world begins to fall dramatically. HKI and partners help develop the SAFE strategy for trachoma control. A new drug Mectizan® (ivermectin), developed by Merck & Co., Inc., proves effective for onchocerciasis prevention and control; HKI launches programs to distribute the drug to vulnerable communities in Africa and Asia-Pacific.
1990 – 2000
Cataract treatment programs are established in 13 countries. Homestead Food Production begins in Bangladesh. HKI begins promoting orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes to enrich diets in Niger. ChildSight®, HKI’s first domestic programs, is inaugurated in the U.S. “to bring education into focusTM” for underserved school children. HKI joins VISION 2020: The Right to Sight, a global initiative to eliminate avoidable blindness by 2020.
HKI’s offices in New York City are destroyed during 9.11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center; no employees were injured, although Helen Keller’s archives are lost. HKI begins its leadership role in West Africa to promote food fortification. After the 2004 tsunami, HKI helps distribute multi-micronutrient Sprinkles® as part of the large-scale relief efforts. HKI creates programs that address the nutritional needs of people living with HIV/AIDS. The 250 millionth dose of Mectizan® (ivermectin) is distributed in Tanzania, while ChildSight® provides its one millionth vision screening in the U.S. HKI is awarded the 2009 Champalimaud Award for its blindness prevention work in developing countries.