Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.Helen Keller
On January 1st, I stepped into some very big shoes as Helen Keller Intl’s new President and Chief Executive Officer. Together, we are 20 countries strong, helping more than 70 million children and family members create lasting change – and changing our shared future as a result.
I am humbled by the opportunity to lead this extraordinary organization at an extraordinary time, an organization named for trailblazer Helen Keller. Helen Keller’s belief in equity, her tenacity and resilience were woven into the stories about powerful women I learned as a child growing up in rural America. Professionally, I have long admired Helen Keller Intl’s commitment to improve the health and lives of people around the world by effectively scaling innovations and improving the systems they rely on.
I have spent my first weeks listening and learning – with colleagues, donors, and trusted partners. I am struck by our Helen Keller community’s commitment to equity, innovation, and humanity, and I am grateful to join you in helping people live healthier lives and make our world a little more equitable.
In this new year, we have so much to look forward to! Here are three things that I am particularly excited about:
Millions of children will be protected, thanks to vitamin A
Nearly 50 years ago, Helen Keller Intl helped uncover the lifesaving power of vitamin A – how it not only reverses the symptoms of night blindness, but builds strong immunity, protecting children against disease and death. Since then, Helen Keller has been a lead organization helping children receive enough vitamin A in their diets, distributing capsules to children across Africa and Asia, where they are most deficient. We have helped families cultivate vitamin-rich foods, like vitamin A-rich, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, and improve their livelihoods by selling surplus produce.
Our approach has been so effective that GiveWell has recognized us as a top charity since 2018. This year we will launch vitamin A distribution in our 14th African Country: Madagascar. More than 40% of Madagascar’s population of 5 million children under the age of five suffer from vitamin A deficiency. With the government of Madagascar, we launched our first door-to-door campaign this month and expect to reach 1.6 million children by the end of 2024 alone.
Mothers and babies, together, will be healthier in 2024
Good health – or the opposite – begins in the womb. Pregnant women need up to 50% more vitamins and minerals to support the changes in their bodies and nutritional needs of their fetuses. Yet globally two-thirds of women are deficient in at least one critical micronutrient, such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A. By replacing the standard regimen of iron-folic-acid with multiple micronutrients, packed for 15 essential vitamins, we can help foster healthier pregnancies and better birth outcomes. Yet it’s not as simple as swapping out a pill.
Our first step is to listen to women, community health heroes, policy makers, and other stakeholders to understand why women aren’t getting – or might be concerned about taking –the vitamins they and their children need to thrive. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made and Helen Keller’s commitment to scale up these prenatal vitamins, ensuring that every mother has access to the nutritional and medical support they need so they and their child can thrive.
We are piloting, testing, and bringing solutions to scale
Last year, thanks to donors’ generous unrestricted gifts, we launched Helen’s Fund. This unrestricted investment fund catalyzes ideas that come from Helen Keller’s outstanding staff around the world to advance new ideas to help more people, more effectively. Many of Helen Keller’s 1,000 staff members come from the communities and countries in which we work. They deeply understand the challenges and landscape and are poised with potential solutions that can be piloted, tested, and scaled to help many more children and family members.
So far, Helen’s Fund is helping to:
- Test delivery of a new pediatric deworming medication in Africa that will help young children be healthier.
- Combine efforts to prevent blinding trachoma with diagnosing and treating another blinding disease, cataracts, in Tanzania.
- Understand the barriers women face in accessing and taking prenatal vitamins in Nepal (see above!).
- Advocate for safer foods for children in Cambodia.
Join me in being a force for good, to help millions more families live healthier lives.