Helen Keller disliked philanthropy. As a member of the Socialist Party, it went against her core beliefs. In 1910 she rejected Andrew Carnegie’s offer of a generous pension, explaining to the wealthy industrialist, “I hope to enlarge my life and work by my own efforts, and you, sir, who have won prosperity from small beginnings, will uphold me in my decision to fight my battles without further help than I am now receiving from loyal friends and a generous world.”
In light of these facts, it is striking to note just how generous Keller was. The little girl from Tuscumbia, Alabama, who lost her sight and hearing as a toddler, would grow up to be one of the 20th century’s leading humanitarians – travelling the globe to fight for the rights of people who were blind or disabled, and spending much of her adult life raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind.
Even as a child, Keller was committed to improving the quality of life for people with blindness. As a student at Perkins School for the Blind, she participated in fundraising campaigns to establish a kindergarten for the blind and pay for the education of Tommy Stringer, a young boy from Pennsylvania who, like Keller, was deafblind.
In the case of Stringer, Keller turned tragedy into triumph. The winter before, Keller’s dog Lioness had been shot by a policeman. When news of the story broke, friends set to work raising money to buy her another dog. Keller, who was just 10 years old, asked that the contributions be used for Stringer’s education instead. The fund grew fast and Stringer was admitted to the Perkins kindergarten in 1891.
As an adult, Keller lobbied for programs for the prevention of blindness, laws for the education and protection of people who were blind and deafblind, and state-assisted programs to help people with disabilities with job training and placement. In 1906, she became one of five founding members of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB), which was the first agency in the nation to provide services to residents with blindness. Today, the MCB serves approximately 27,000 people across the state who are legally blind – providing rehabilitation and social services with the goal of promoting independence and community participation.
In her later years, Keller traveled to 39 countries in an effort to persuade foreign governments to establish schools for people who were blind and deaf. After World War II, she helped raise money for Japanese orphans injured by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Keller’s legacy of philanthropy and advocacy, which has continued to inspire people and organizations around the globe, may be best summed up in a letter she wrote to Carnegie:
My joys and sorrows are bound up indissolubly with the joys and sorrows of my fellowmen, and I feel far more blessed to see them receiving new opportunities, better tools with which to do their work, than I could feel if I received more for myself.
On November 29, Perkins will join thousands of organizations across the country to celebrate #GivingTuesday – a global day of giving that harnesses the collective philanthropic power of individuals and communities.
We hope you have been inspired by Helen Keller’s legacy of generosity and advocacy, and invite you to give back this #GivingTuesday. Your gift to Perkins can be doubled as part of our Holiday Challenge Match – so you’ll help twice as many children who are blind.
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