Our History

Our History

November 11, 2015, marked Helen Keller International’s Centennial Anniversary.

Our Centennial was dedicated to Treasuring our Legacy and to Securing our Future, which continues to be made possible with the support and partnership of our donors and supporters around the world.

The welfare of each is bound up in the welfare of all.”  — Helen Keller

Helen Keller believed that even the poorest and most vulnerable among us deserve to live to their fullest potential.  While our mission has evolved with the changing needs of our world, our work remains grounded in helping those most in need attain the tools and resources needed to help themselves. 

We are as relevant today as we were at our founding by Helen Keller and George Kessler, a wealthy New York City wine merchant who survived the sinking of the Lusitania, to help soldiers blinded during WWI.

Today, Helen Keller International is a leading international nonprofit organization headquartered in the United States that works to save the sight and lives of the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged by preventing blindness and reducing malnutrition. Working in 22 countries, HKI is a rising star in global development and is ranked among the most effective charities in the global aid community, earning the highest four-star Charity Navigator rating. Many of our flagship programs are globally recognized as among the most cost-effective in public health. We have more than 120 programs that reach millions of people each year.

Following are highlights in our journey of a century of service and our evolutionary change to meet the challenges of the day:

1915–1920

Helen Keller International traces our 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 and vowed, as his lifeboat repeatedly capsized, to help those less fortunate in the world if he survived. 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 with George Raverat as 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. Helen Keller becomes a lifelong supporter and ambassador.

1920–1930

George Kessler dies in 1920 and New York lawyer William Nelson Cromwell, co-founder of Sullivan & Cromwell, an international law firm headquartered in New York, succeeds him. Under his long-time leadership, the organization develops a press that prints books and music in Braille. In 1925, the Permanent Blind Relief War Fund expands its focus beyond a purely war relief effort to one of aid and comfort to the civilian blind worldwide, 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 knowledge, information and entertainment furnished through the books and periodicals help widen the scope of activities and opportunities available to blind people.

1930–1940

The Press issues the first “talking book” in 1937 and makes plans to aid soldiers who would inevitably be blinded in World War II.

1940–1950

In late 1939, World War II began in Europe. The Press, which had its origins in World War I, drew on its experience began to prepare for aiding the war blind again. 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 expands its mission to include rehabilitation. In 1946, Helen Keller made the first of many trips under the auspices of the Foundation to investigate the conditions and needs of blind people in all parts of the world. She noted, “I was prepared for the tragedy but not for its extent or complexity...they do not want charity, they want the kind of help that will give their lives a goal, their frustrated selves a purpose around which to integrate their personalities and regain their inner health.” 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.

1950–1960

AFOB is working on four continents—Africa, Asia, Europe and South America and started programs in China, Iran, Israel and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In May 1959, the Foundation initiated the Helen Keller Crusade for the Blind, named to honor the leadership and inspiration she had given for so many years. The purpose of the Crusade was to expand public awareness of and support of the Foundation’s programs.  Given that Helen Keller was approaching 80 years old, she looked to the Crusade to carry on and expand her work overseas and to keep alive the hope inspired in the countries she had visited. 

1960–1970

The Spirit of Helen Keller Award was established in 1959, during Helen Keller’s lifetime. The award commemorates her unique legacy and expresses appreciation for her role as a founder, trustee and staff member of Helen Keller International. First awardee was Colonel Edward A. Baker, one of the chief organizers of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, as the first recipient. 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. It is a turning point for AFOB as it 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.

1970–1980

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.

1980–1990

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 sweet potatoes to enrich diets in Niger. ChildSight®, HKI’s first domestic program, 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.

2000–2010

Our 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. Helen Keller International begins its leadership role in West Africa to promote food fortification. After the 2004 tsunami, we distribute multi-micronutrient Sprinkles® as part of the large-scale relief efforts. We also introduce 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 United States. The Helen Keller Visionary Award was established in 2005 to recognize institutional friends whose generosity and innovations advance our mission. The first recipient in 2006 was H.J. Heinz Company and William R. Johnson, Chairman, President & CEO.  The Helen Keller Legacy Award was established in 2005 to recognize the significant on-going support of an institution for the work of Helen Keller International. The first recipient in 2006 was Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, accepted by H. Rodgin Cohen, Chairman & Partner. The Helen Keller Humanitarian Award was established in 2007 to recognize the significant support of individuals or institutions for their sustained humanitarian efforts around the world. The first recipient in 2008 was Merck & Co., Inc. and Richard T. Clark, Chairman, President & CEO. Helen Keller International is awarded the 2009 Champalimaud Award for its blindness prevention work in developing countries. Also in 2009, Consumer's Digest listed Helen Keller International as one of America’s Top Charities.  We were awarded this distinction because of our spending efficiency (the amount a charity spends on its mission compared with total expenses) as well as our cost-effective fundraising.

2010–2015

In 2011, Helen Keller International is included in Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s "Gifts That Say You Care" holiday giving column. “Helen Keller International...gets more bang for the buck than almost any group I can think of.” In 2014, Helen Keller International becomes the tenth recipient of the Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership in recognition of our worldwide fight against blindness and malnutrition. The Award is accepted by Kathy Spahn, President & CEO. Also in 2014, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn feature the work of Helen Keller International in their latest book A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunities.  

In 2015, HKI celebrated 100 years of progress and impact. The 2015 Spirit of Helen Keller Gala on Monday, May 18, 2015 raised more than $1.5 million in support of our sight and lifesaving efforts in Africa, Asia and the United States.