Helen Keller International was co-founded in 1915 by two extraordinary individuals, Helen Keller and George Kessler, to assist soldiers blinded during their service in World War I. 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, founded the organization and asked Helen Keller, then 35 years old, for her support. She enthusiastically agreed.
“The welfare of each is bound up in the welfare of all.”Helen Keller
Since then, we have committed ourselves to continuing Helen’s work. And that work has evolved. Guided by her fierce optimism, we have been working on the front lines of health for more than 100 years. Our programs prioritize preventing and treating vision loss and blindness—as well as addressing major global health problems such as malnutrition and neglected diseases that threaten sight, productivity, and well-being.
In Africa, Asia, Europe, and the U.S., Helen Keller International’s proven, science-based programs empower people to create opportunities in their own lives and build lasting change. Working in 21 countries, we are ranked among the most effective charities in international development and global health, with a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for several consecutive years. We have more than 107 projects around the world that reach millions of people each year.
As we look ahead to new opportunities and challenges related to our mission, one thing remains constant – Helen’s fierce optimism and belief in human potential are at the heart of everything we do.
Milestones from 100 Years of Service to Humanity
Here are just a few milestones from our more than 100-year history of empowering vulnerable people to reach their full potential.
George Kessler 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 cofounder, lifelong supporter, and ambassador.
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.
The Press issues the first “talking book” in 1937 and makes plans to aid soldiers who would inevitably be blinded in World War II.
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.
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 maintain the hope inspired in the countries she had visited.
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.
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 percent, 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 Helen Keller Intl’s efforts, and the rate of childhood blindness around the world begins to fall dramatically. Helen Keller Intl 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; Helen Keller Intl launches programs to distribute the drug to vulnerable communities in Africa and Asia-Pacific.
Cataract treatment programs are established in 13 countries. Homestead Food Production begins in Bangladesh. Helen Keller Intl begins promoting orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to enrich diets in Niger. The first Helen Keller Intl domestic program is inaugurated in the U.S. “to bring education into focus” for underserved school children. Helen Keller Intl joins VISION 2020: The Right to Sight, a global initiative to eliminate avoidable blindness by 2020.
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 our US vision program 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.
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, with the endorsement that, “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 book A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunities.
Helen Keller International Awards
Every year, Helen Keller International commemorates Helen Keller’s achievements and legacy by recognizing exemplary individuals and institutions that advance her work through their humanitarian efforts.
See a full list of award recipients from 1960-2019.