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“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadows.” 

Helen Keller

The start of a year offers an opportunity for renewed hope and a fresh perspective. While the challenges of COVID-19, a mounting hunger crisis, and economic strains are all daunting, we choose to side with our co-founder Helen Keller’s persistent optimism, resilience and grit. We choose to meet these challenges head on with action and compassion.

Our work gives us plenty of reasons for hope – along the way, we meet astounding individuals making change in their communities, and we see firsthand the results of our health interventions as they make a difference for millions of individuals. And we know that with the right support, at the right time, we can help children, mothers and families unlock their true potential.

Here are some of the reasons we’re optimistic for the year ahead:

We’re one step closer to eliminating lymphatic filariasis and trachoma. 

A trachoma surgery patient is being examined in Nigeria.

Trachoma and lymphatic filariasis are considered neglected tropical diseases, a group of mainly parasitic and bacterial diseases that can cause intense pain and suffering.  Trachoma, if not treated, can cause irreversible blindness. It is the leading infectious cause of blindness worldwide, affecting 1.9 million people today. There are 136 million people who live in areas where trachoma is endemic who are at risk of going blind from this disease. Lymphatic filariasis impacts the lymphatic system and can lead to painful and debilitating disfigurement and disability. In addition to the physical impact of these diseases, the resulting economic hardship and social stigma can be devastating. However, both diseases can be prevented, and Helen Keller focuses its programs where these diseases are most common, especially in areas that lack access to basic healthcare, clean water, and adequate sanitation.

After months of lock down, we safely restarted our work towards controlling and eliminating these and other neglected tropical diseases. Last year, our government partners reached over 25 million people with critical medicines to help treat and prevent these debilitating diseases, bringing the countries where we work closer to reaching elimination milestones. When mass treatment campaigns first started in the early 2000s, millions of people were living in regions where these diseases were rampant. Thanks to the combined efforts of Helen Keller, the Ministries of Health and in-country partners, these diseases are in retreat. Of the millions of people living in countries where Helen Keller works that were once endemic, 82% are no longer at risk for lymphatic filariasis and 91% of people are no longer at risk for trachoma.

“We’re optimistic because even with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are one step closer to achieving elimination of lymphatic filariasis and trachoma in the countries in which we work,” says Dr. Angela Weaver, Vice President of Neglected Tropical Diseases at Helen Keller. “Of the five countries where we’ve supported treatment for trachoma, four have been able to stop treatment. That is a major achievement.” 

Local nutrition solutions are increasingly recognized as key to fighting hunger, climate change, and economic disruption.

Theu waters the vegetables she is growing on her land
A woman tends to her farm in Vietnam.

“The reasons for investing in nutrition – improved child development, stronger immunity, better school performance, fewer child deaths, more financial stability, and an incredibly high return on investment – have not changed.  But the world has,” says Rolf Klemm, Vice President of Nutrition for Helen Keller. Across the globe, it’s no longer a debate that we need to invest in local, nutritious food systems that preserve and enhance natural resources.

It’s now widely accepted that building an environmentally sustainable food system that produces nutritious foods is both good for health and for slowing climate change. Local food systems also build resilience, especially in areas of conflict and crisis. Households that grow their own food can better cope with increases in food prices, supply shortages, and other possible disruptions that the pandemic made all too clear.

“The nutrition community is also coming together like never before to advocate with one voice – supporting more equitable partnerships between outside experts and indigenous wisdom, and being more inclusive of local communities,” says Jennifer Nielsen, Senior Nutrition Advisor for Helen Keller. We expect that 2022 will continue this trend as we build bridges, forge new alliances, and expand our nutrition community.

Our vision team is back in schools – and making up for lost time.

Helen Keller staff set up the Snell eye screening chart to screen students in Minnesota.

It’s understandable that the future for vision care in the world today may look bleak, especially for children. “COVID-19 has disrupted learning by shuttering schools and shifting to virtual learning nearly overnight,” says Meghan Lynch, Director of US Vision Programs at Helen Keller. “Experts are seeing a rise in myopia, or nearsightedness, with children spending less time outdoors and more time in front of screens. Vision services were put on hold, as we lost our ability to directly reach students in schools.”

But we pivoted – redirecting our focus to deepening our partnerships with community-based organizations in the neighborhoods where we routinely work in schools so that we could continue to provide services to school-aged youth, as well as to other vulnerable populations. Despite COVID-19’s challenges, we still made progress. In 2021, we provided no-cost vision services to more than 28,000 students.  

Following a year of COVID-19 related school closures, this fall, we were able to re-enter schools. This school year, we’ll see as many students as we can and continue addressing the needs of other vulnerable populations such as homeless families, refugees, and low-income seniors. We’re glad to have been able to re-engage with our school partners, to continue to address the high level of unmet need, and to further build up our partnerships with community-based organizations that serve vulnerable adults.

In 2021, we made so much progress despite it being such a tough year. Join us as we continue to support children and families most in need.