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John Palmer, former President of Helen Keller International
October 4, 2001

What attracted me to Helen Keller International wasn’t so much blindness, but the agency’s approach to international development. I think the paradigm that this agency embraced of trying to provide the ingredients to strengthen local capacity to establish cutting-edge and high quality sustained programs is the right approach.

Another thing that appealed to me about Helen Keller International was its very specific focus on a mission or a challenge. They were not trying to be all things to all people. Helen Keller clearly delivered extended benefits with impact beyond blindness and its prevention. Even though it isn’t a social justice organization, it contributes to social justice by building and strengthening societies. Even though it is not an economic development institution, its benefit is directly tied to poverty alleviation. Improving people’s health improves their capacity to work, which in turn improves their capacity to make money. As someone once said, ‘It is a creature with many legs.’

John Palmer (far right) working in the field, 1973

When I started, the headquarters organization was extremely fractured. Helen Keller was working in less than a half dozen countries. The staff was less than half its present size. There were as many camps as there were employees. It had gotten to a critical point. Programs were in Vitamin A, primary eye care, and education and rehabilitation. Those were the only programs. The first three years, my role was to keep the doors open. Trying to get audits done, trying to get the federal relationship regularized, trying to make peace within the staff, trying to grow the organization. By and large, those things happened. I think the negative was that it took so long to find how extensive the damage was in terms of finance.

The inspiring thing about the organization is that our field programs have always been fantastic. During those days, even though it was very stressed in New York, the field programs were of the highest quality.  Our programs in the field of international development have always been recognized for their quality and impact. We’ve always stayed out front and we’ve had superb staff to be able to do that- very dedicated.