Dengue. Malaria. Ebola. These are just some of the conditions that Helen Keller International staff have contracted or been exposed to while delivering services to communities in 22 countries around the world. From the office in New York City where I sit, these tropical diseases can seem foreign, but for the majority of the 900+ people working for Helen Keller, they are a real threat—as are earthquakes, kidnappings, political demonstrations, and a myriad of other concerns.
You wouldn’t know that, though, from the everyday communication I have with our staff in Dhaka, Freetown, Hanoi, Jakarta, Maputo, Nairobi, Phnom Penh, and Yangon. It’s all in a day’s work when your mission is to save the sight and lives of the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged. And as I’ve come to learn from my time at Helen Keller, this is not just a professional but a personal mission for our staff, many of whom are from the impoverished countries and communities where we work.
The commitment and dedication of Helen Keller staff is reflected in the remarkable efforts of one member of our office in Sierra Leone, Mohamed Turay, who through a long 72-hour sleepless push during the height of the Ebola epidemic programmed software for an innovative mobile platform to track new outbreaks of this terrifying disease, monitor disease surveillance and effectively quarantine at-risk houses within 24 hours. The technology he helped develop was incorporated into the larger emergency efforts in the country’s Western Area, which includes the capital of Freetown, and helped facilitate a more rapid and effective response for containing the disease. We’re now on track to eliminate Ebola in Sierra Leone thanks in part to this work.
Mohamed’s creativity, innovation and drive are all the more remarkable because of the enormous challenges at hand. But as I’ve witnessed here at Helen Keller, it is these very challenges that serve as the incubators for great ideas. For our staff, it isn’t just the threat of Ebola stirring them to action, it is the knowledge that 80 percent of blindness is preventable. It is the reality that 3.1 million children will needlessly die this year from malnutrition. Or, more likely, it is the single undernourished child they meet, as I did in a small village in Senegal, who is now thriving thanks to a community that has been empowered by HKI to respond to malnutrition with evidence-based solutions. This is what inspires us to action.
Whether it’s therapeutic feeding to prevent acute malnutrition or telemedic-supported surgery to restore vision clouded by cataracts, Helen Keller creates and delivers innovative, scalable solutions to some of the world’s most challenging problems. And, as I have witnessed firsthand, it is our dedicated staff—in partnership with mothers, local communities, government ministries and peer organizations—who are driving forward these innovations that are resulting in real progress. The staff at Helen Keller is a true testament to the vision of our founder, Helen Keller, who said: “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”