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This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post as part of GivingTuesday initiative.
After flying from New York City to Dakar to Banjul to Freetown, riding a bus to a dock and a boat across a bay to a 4X4 truck that travels up and down roads that transition from broken pavement to muddy earth, I stand at the front of a classroom – one that is empty of children. Today, 30 adults sit in row after row of benches, some bending forward with heads propped on elbows as if they have been waiting a long time. And they have.
Today is World Sight Day which is celebrated every year on the second Thursday in October to raise awareness about avoidable blindness and visual impairment.
I’ve worn glasses since I was a young student, so I’m pretty familiar with visual impairment. In fact, I couldn’t really function at all without my glasses (or contacts) -– I couldn’t drive, work on the computer, cook, manage my way through my apartment, etc.
By Shawn Baker, HKI’s Vice President and Regional Director for Africa.
Two weeks ago, I arrived in Abidjan from Dakar in early evening. Passport control, retrieving luggage and getting out of the airport took only minutes. Hassle-free. In the past there would have been aggravations at each stage. This set the tone for most of my visit – after 10 years of political crisis and a contested election that resulted in weeks of warfare – Abidjan is back!
Today is the birthday of Helen Keller, one of the greatest American heroes. I am always amazed by how much she accomplished during her life. She never let her blindness or deafness get in the way of her goals. Chief among those was being a voice for those who were less fortunate than she was, but her vision was not confined to those who were blind or deaf. She wanted to help all who were vulnerable, a legacy that Helen Keller International continues today in her name.
I’ve often wondered how Helen experienced New York City and I was given that opportunity at the immersive interactive show called Dialog in the Dark. All participants are given a white cane and walk in total darkness through several New York settings. Our group’s guide was himself blind. We wandered through “Central Park” and heard more clearly the songs of birds and the ripple of water. In a grocery store, our senses of smell and touch were heightened as we tried to find fruits and vegetables. It was fun and stimulating.
The famous social activist talks about the importance of vitamin A
Shopping at my local supermarket this morning, imagine my surprise when I spotted Helen Keller! I debated whether I should bother her – because most celebrities like to be left alone – but decided I had to go up and introduce myself. Not only is my organization, Helen Keller International (HKI), named after her, but she is also a personal hero of mine.
I caught up with her in the vegetable aisle and asked her why she was shopping so early on a Sunday morning. She was beyond gracious, encouraging me to call her Helen instead of Ms. Keller. “I am making a sweetpotato pie for dessert tonight,” she explained, “I’ve invited some friends over for dinner to introduce them to the great work that HKI is doing, and wanted to show them how delicious vitamin A can be.”
In just a few days we officially celebrate Mother’s Day. At Helen Keller International, we celebrate mothers all year round since they are crucial to the success of our program that prevent blindness and reduce malnutrition.
One constant I have observed while traveling to HKI’s programs around the world is the love that mothers have for their children and their willingness to try new things to ensure their health and happiness.
An interview with HKI's President and CEO
Have you ever dreamt about having more fun at your job, or wondered why some people really look forward to going to work every day? Ask Kathy Spahn, President and Chief Executive Officer of Helen Keller International, about her work. Even after five years, she still feels rewarded and energized by her job. I recently asked Kathy to tell us about her journey to HKI and what inspires her the most.
Homestead Food Production in Bangladesh
I am traveling with a film crew from Digital Development Communications to create videos of Helen Keller International’s programs in Bangladesh. Our journey has taken us to the southern area of Barisal division, in the sub-district of Barguna. We are working with local partners to implement our Homestead Food Production programs and to establish or re-establish livelihoods destroyed during Cyclone Sidr in 2007.
Helen Keller International addresses the growing problem of blindness from diabetes
There are a lot of people in the unlit, rather grimy waiting room at the Diabetes Hospital in Chittagong, Bangladesh. I had read the statistics about the burgeoning numbers of diabetics, but it is a different experience seeing the numbers transformed into persons. Despite a certain level of chaos, patients’ needs are being met – their blood sugar checked, nutrition counseling provided, their feet and legs examined for worrisome pain, numbness or ulcers, etc.