Working Together to Overcome Suffering

By Kathy Spahn

Kathy Spahn

On the afternoon of April 29, Buddhist Global Relief celebrated its tenth anniversary at St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery on East 10th Street in Manhattan. The guest speaker for the occasion was Kathy Spahn, president and chief executive officer of Helen Keller International, which has been a BGR partner since 2009. Here follows a slightly abridged version of the text of her talk.

I’m really touched to have been invited here today to celebrate your ten-year anniversary with you. Helen Keller International has partnered with Buddhist Global Relief for about nine of those ten years, and together we have saved many lives, and made a profound difference in the world.

I’m lucky that I have the privilege of serving as President and CEO of an organization that bears the name of Helen Keller. Helen Keller was a champion of those living in poverty, and a defender of the rights of the oppressed and the marginalized. She was an educated, accomplished, and .courageous woman who challenged the accepted ideas about people with disabilities—about who they are and what they can contribute,

Throughout HKI’s 100-year plus history, our organization has been grounded in the legacy and spirit of Helen Keller. That spirit can be summed up in four words: Courage. Optimism. Activism. Compassion.

Helen heard the call to serve others, as did Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi when he wrote that really compelling and inspiring article for Buddhadharma magazine in 2007, the article that planted the seed for what would become Buddhist Global Relief. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to personally thank Ven. Bodhi today. And I want to thank all of you—BGR’s generous and caring donors and friends, its devoted Board of Directors, its tireless staff—for your response to that same call to service. For your engagement with the issues of global suffering, poverty and hunger. Our work would not be possible without you.

In his article, Ven. Bodhi cited the Buddha’s words, “The world is grounded upon suffering.” How I wish that what prompted those words at the time were not still as true today! The simple but powerful truth of the vast amount of suffering in the world is at the heart of what motivates us at HKI each and every day. The world’s vulnerable and disadvantaged people need our help.

As one shocking example, every year, 3 million children die before their fifth birthday from causes related to malnutrition. This means that poor nutrition is implicated in nearly half of all deaths of children under five! Based on this knowledge, and his awareness of the immensity of the world’s anguish, Ven. Bodhi called for action, and through our partnership Buddhist Global Relief and Helen Keller International are acting together—doing a great deal to address human suffering. 

  • Through our earliest work together in Mali and Niger in 2009, we reached more than 42,000 children and nursing mothers with critical micronutrients like vitamin A and iron. Vitamin A is essential to protect eyesight. A deficiency of this vitamin is the largest cause of preventable blindness in children, but providing high dosage supplements can reverse this condition. Vitamin A is also essential for immune system function, so that, when a child gets a cold or an upset stomach, they can fight it and return to health. Supplements make this possible. 

    Iron is essential for growth and strength, so that children can grow up to be strong and mothers can do all that multi-tasking that moms around the world are expected to do! 

    Together, we also reached nearly 30,000 children with deworming medication, to rid their bodies of parasitic worms that rob them of their ability to absorb these micronutrients that are essential for good health.

  • In 2010, again in Niger, you helped us respond to a horrific food crisis in the Zinder region, which has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world. Our efforts ensured that more than 40,000 children and nearly 10,000 mothers suffering from acute malnutrition received emergency rations. 

  • In 2012 in Cote d’Ivoire, we worked with local community groups to promote the Essential Nutrition Actions, through which mothers learn practical measures for caring for infants and young children. Based on what we achieved through that project, UNICEF provided ongoing support to those local community groups to continue and to extend these activities. Our productive partnership in Cote d’Ivoire continues today as we strengthen health clinics that serve nearly a million people! 

  • In 2013, through our “Making Markets Work for Women” project in Bangladesh, we not only improved nutrition for vulnerable families, we also improved women’s income. We equipped them with the skills and tools they needed to grow nutritious food to feed their families, and also taught them how to market their excess produce to earn an income. These women have been incredibly entrepreneurial, and have expanded from selling raw produce to making processed foods such ass pickles and garlic powder—condiments with much greater shelf life that can greatly boost their incomes.

  • And just last year, we served 100 families in the poorest communes in one of the poorest districts in Vietnam’s Son La Province. I just visited this program last month, and I can tell you that 90% of home gardens in the communities we serve now have at least three types of nutritious vegetables for daily meals. And the children are healthily plump and smiling! 

Like Helen—and like Venerable Bodhi—we are committed to protecting and empowering those the world has forgotten or purposely ignores, and to helping lift them out of suffering and poverty. I have the incredible “reward” of seeing this time and time again in my travels.

Last fall, I visited Nepal, where HKI is helping poor families through a program called Suaahara (which means “Good Nutrition”). I attended one of our groups designed for local mothers. It was pouring that day, yet the rain did not stop the women from gathering under a hastily mounted tarp to share the homestead farming techniques that make it possible for them to grow nutritious vegetables year-round for their families. 

These women are strongly motivated. They got all animated talking about what they’ve accomplished and the innovations they’ve introduced. One mom, Goma, has made such a success of selling the tomatoes from her garden that she has now devised a type of cold frame greenhouse that lets her grow nutrient-rich produce year-round.

These same spirited women are found in Africa, too! Niger, where you have supported our work, is home to some amazingly resilient and entrepreneurial women. When I was there in February, I met a young mother with a healthy looking 7-month-old she exclusively breastfed for the first six months—the very best thing a new mom can do for her child. She talked about how much she had learned from HKI about breastfeeding, hygiene, and good nutrition.

When you visit our programs and meet the moms, children and dads we are assisting—when you listen to what they say about how their health, their livelihoods, and their lives are improving, when you see their plump and smiling babies—you know that it is indeed possible to change the world.

As Helen said, and as is demonstrated by our partnership, “The world is full of suffering, but it is also full of the overcoming of it.” Thank you for helping us to overcome this suffering.

Kathy Spahn is President and Chief Executive Officer of Helen Keller International.


Our Projects

BGR projects are designed to provide direct food aid to people afflicted by hunger and malnutrition, to promote ecologically sustainable agriculture, to support the education of girls and women, and to give women an opportunity to start right livelihood projects to support their families. This is a selection of our newest projects. To see all our projects, please click here.

Bangladesh NEW

Help fund vocational training for 200 married adolescent girls so they can pursue alternative opportunities and shape their own futures. »

Brazil  NEW

Support women from the indigenous Guarani Mbya community in promoting and applying traditional agricultural practices in five villages in São Paulo. »

Cambodia NEW

Provide food and hygiene materials for women and infants living in 18 Cambodian prisons, plagued by squalid conditions. »

Cameroon   NEW

Provide 120 children in need with school furniture, literacy materials, and computers. » »


Provide two meals a day, five days a week, to approximately 100 children and 40 adults. » 

India   NEW

Help in providing three healthy meals a day, seven days a week, to 240 students. » 

Malawi and Kenya

Training in biointensive climate-resilient farming to increase food production for 450 farmers, of whom 300 are women. » 

Peru   NEW

Improve the physical and emotional well-being of 30 young women by funding school supplies and providing workshops on the importance of education, hygiene, and a healthy diet. »

Sri Lanka  NEW

Provide vocational training and work opportunities for 60 disabled people in the Anuradhabura district. » 


Provide agricultural training and supplies to an estimated 3,000 individuals, increasing food production by 30 percent. »


Uganda NEW

Provide assistance to 12 students to attend school. »

U.S. Easton, Pennsylvania

Provide 6,000 pounds of locally grown produce to 800 low-income residents, 600 of them women. Build community through programs including free monthly workshops on urban farming topics. »