Helen Keller Intl’s President and CEO Sarah Bouchie

Growing up in rural Minnesota, Sarah Bouchie remembers that her second grade teacher often placed on the classroom bulletin board photos and information about accomplished women who had made a difference in people’s lives. “She had these luminaries for us to look at because, at that time, I was in a very small community where we didn’t see a lot of female role models,” Sarah said. “She made a decision that she wanted to put that forward for us as little girls.” The women included the conservationist, Rachel Carson, abolitionist and socialist, Harriet Tubman, and disability rights advocate, Helen Keller. On January 1, Sarah became Helen Keller Intl’s new president and chief executive officer, tasked with leading a nonprofit that continues to honor Keller’s legacy by working in 20 countries around the world advancing health and nutrition. 

Speaking with Sarah via Zoom from her home in Zimbabwe, she talked about how her childhood, education, and work experiences have prepared her well for taking on this high profile position. “I was from an activist family,” she said, noting that both her parents were educators, her father, an administrator, who were able to provide for Sarah and her sister, while other children were getting free lunches. “You can feel that even as a young person,” she said. “That sense of inequity and what I could do was something I was really raised with.”

Helen Keller, circa 1920*

She enrolled as an environmental science major at Eureka College in Illinois. In her junior year she discovered a program where students could spend time in Africa helping out with projects in the line states that were bordering South Africa after apartheid. “I went to Mozambique, originally to plant trees to work on environmental issues,” she said. “But when I got there, the tree farm that we were supposed to work on burned down.” Sarah ended up working on an early child development project. 

“I was 20-nothing, I was literally just 20 and it changed my life,” she said. “It became a part of me and what I felt I should do and contribute in the world. I knew disparity, but it was a place where it really resonated with me and I could do more. It combined my love of learning about other cultures and thinking about different languages and seeing different parts of the world and how different people live.”

After graduating from Eureka, Sarah applied to American University to earn a graduate degree in international development with a focus on education and civil society building. “Civic participation really does change the world,” she said. “And that’s what started my career.”

While attending graduate school, Sarah worked as an Americore volunteer at the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, D.C. “I taught English, mostly to Central American refugees and immigrants,” she said. “It was difficult, but taught me a lot about how people want to change their lives and they need supports in order to do that.” After receiving her graduate degree, she worked at a nonprofit that was providing reference and research services to the U.S. government to help officials make better grant decisions. She also worked for a foundation and a number of NGOs. 

Sarah Bouchie (Photo Credit: Brian Hatton, Helen Keller Intl)

In 2017, Sarah took a job with the LEGO Foundation, based in Billund, Denmark. “I had spent 20 years in non-profit and I realized that when we made really big breakthroughs, thinking about things differently and getting another level of impact, it was often when I saw this connection between people who had come from the business world and people who had come from a non-profit social sector world,” Sarah said. “I just wanted to learn more, and the LEGO Foundation, at the time and still is, the biggest recognized brand in the world. I thought where better to learn about corporate strategy than at LEGO.”

According to Sarah, many people don’t know that the LEGO Foundation owns 25 percent of the business. “So 25 percent of the profit of every box goes to social development activities around the world,” she said. “It’s a very generous owner family that has a belief in giving back. There’s something very much grounded in their values as a Danish company.”

Sarah also was won over by the title of the position she was offered. “I started out as the vice president for learning through play and early childhood and I thought, how could I not take a title that has play in it? That’s just the most fun,” she said. “I’m happy to report that it’s like that every day at the LEGO Foundation. People play all the time, they are always manipulating bricks and they’re playing games and they are talking differently and they are working with designers and they are doing things in crazy spaces. The creative juices and energy that are constantly flowing around in that place is inspiring.”

The move to Billund, known as “the capital of children,” turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for Sarah’s family. (Her two children are now 15 and 8.) “My children got to experience Danish society, but they also had LEGO Land in their backyard, literally,” she said. “They had season passes and were there all the time.” The children attended an experimental school grounded in what is called “learning through play.” Sarah added: “It’s all about how creative, playful experiences build better memories and better memories help kids learn. When you put those things together, learning through play makes a lot of sense and it was a challenge of the foundation to say everybody should know how to unlock this in children and in adults. That’s what we did.”

After three years, Sarah became a senior vice president in charge of the foundation’s international work and giving. “During COVID we gave money away to organizations across 30-plus countries and we made some really big bold statements about the importance of vaccines,” she said. “I was part of a $200 million gift to talk about the importance of little people, infants and babies, and how they need attention during conflict. It was a wonderful time to be there.”

With so many people isolating during the pandemic, children were not the only ones playing with LEGO bricks. “When COVID hit, a lot of us had to think about how to become more creative in private spaces and it was a wonderful time for many adults to rediscover this part of their childhood,” she said. “There’s a saying at LEGO – `if you can imagine it, you can build it.’ When you start to practice that, it’s an amazing thing.” A LEGO Museum, called LEGO House, displays what some people have created using the colorful bricks. 

Sarah first met her husband, Armindo Banze, who is from Mozambique, when they were both working in that country. “He was working for UNDP, United Nations Development Program, in Mozambique,” she said. “I was a graduate student and had a summer internship to work with a program that still exists, a non-profit based in New York City called the Trickle Up Program. He spent a week with me out in communities and villages.” At the end of that week, she and Banze enjoyed some down time, going to a concert with their colleagues. “I went back to the U.S. and finished my graduate program and then I ended up back in Mozambique with the National Democratic Institute and we reconnected,” she said. “Some four years after that he became my husband.” They have been married for 22 years.

When Sarah joined the LEGO Foundation, Armindo left the U.S. Foreign Service to move to Denmark with the family. Armindo rejoined the U.S. Foreign Service during COVID and received the posting in Zimbabwe in 2022. His posting in Zimbabwe was Sarah’s original motivation to leave the LEGO Foundation so her family could move together. “We knew that this was a wonderful opportunity for our family, to move back to this region and have our children experience life in southern Africa,” Sarah said. “It caught my heart and attention in 1995, and that’s where my husband is from.”

LEGO had a new CEO and Sarah decided to take a sabbatical, offering to be available to help the new leadership team in any way she could. “But I knew that I probably wouldn’t move back to Denmark,” she said. “I felt like I had brought the foundation to a certain point and personally it was a good time to pivot.” For a year, Sarah worked on a variety of pro bono projects. “I did a little bit of executive coaching, I worked on local boards, I did presentations and trainings for UNICEF here, and I did consulting with small African NGOs that wanted to get big and talk about scale.” She also had time to think about her strengths as a leader. “How do I think I best exercise them?” she said. “Where do I get my energy from? It was a real clarifying time for me to understand the importance of leading people.”

While Sarah enjoyed coaching people, she didn’t want to stay on the sidelines. When she learned that Helen Keller Intl would be looking for a new CEO and president, she was interested. “There are those moments in your life when you can think this is my skill set and this is what I do well, I need to find an organization that needs those things,” she said. Helen Keller seemed the perfect match.

A healthcare worker gives a girl a vitamin A supplement in Kenya. (Photo credit: Helen Keller Intl)

Thanks to that second grade teacher, Sarah had always known about Helen Keller – her reputation as a trailblazer for social justice and a beacon for resilience. She also knew about Helen Keller Intl. “I knew its reputation for strong evidence based, consistent work because I had worked in the early childhood space for so long,” she said. “The work that Helen Keller does around nutrition, it’s field building, it’s leading in our sector. It’s changed the way UNICEF does its work. It’s really important the kinds of things done around vitamin A or orange flesh sweet potatoes. It’s really impressive.” 

Fifty years ago, a study conducted with Dr. Alfred Sommer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Helen Keller (then known as the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind), discovered that vitamin A could not only prevent blindness but also decrease the risk of childhood mortality by a third. That finding became a cornerstone of Helen Keller’s work, with the distribution of low cost vitamin A helping to improve children’s health. Other sources of vitamin A, including orange skin sweet potatoes, became a part of the program, with families encouraged to grow the nutrient rich tuber in their home gardens.

While Sarah is new to the job, she has hit the ground running. “I’m so lucky to have inherited an organization that is so much on the upswing when you look at any of our indicators,” she said. “They are in really good shape and they are in better shape than they have been in a long time, the number of donors, the diversification, the number of kids we’re reaching. I feel like my job is to consolidate those gains and see how we can bring about more efficiencies, because I want to help make a difference in the lives of more families and children.”

Sarah Bouchie with William Toppeta (Photo Credit: Helen Keller Intl)

“The Helen Keller Board of Trustees is absolutely delighted that Sarah has joined our renowned institution as President and CEO,” said William Toppeta, Board Chair, Helen Keller Intl. “We believe Sarah has all the necessary attributes to lead Helen Keller into the future. Her strategic and leadership skills are complemented by her caring attitude, dedication to equity, and communication talents. Together these qualities ensure that she will be highly successful in her new role. We’re working with Sarah to help more of the world’s most vulnerable people.”

The organization’s business model not only involves reaching more people who need help, but making sure that supporters and donors understand that they are making a difference in the world. “One of the things that Helen Keller herself said was that the welfare of each is bound up in the welfare of all,” she said. “That rings so true and I want to make sure our supporters feel that.”

Sarah recognizes the importance of being a good listener. “I can’t know how it is to walk in the world unless I’m hearing from the people we partner with and do the work and are affected by the work,” she said. “Spending the time, whether it’s actually in a village across from a minister of health or on a Zoom call with a staff member who is in Madagascar starting up our brand new program. Those are all examples of things that are really important for me to be an effective leader. And then I think I need to help bring about the vision of where we want to go and that vision setting requires me to be looking out and talking to people outside the organization. Talking about what we do and generating the support and helping to broker different kinds of deals, thinking about ways that we work. That’s a big piece of my time.”

Closing the equity gap, something Helen Keller campaigned for, is also very much on Sarah’s mind. “I think we have work to do both in the world for that to happen, but also in an organization like Helen Keller,” she said. “How do we lift up our African leadership, how do we think about our Asian partners, as partners instead of recipients. Those are really exciting things that I’m looking forward to continue the journey and this success story that we are building on.”

Based in Zimbabwe, Sarah said she is traveling about 10 days a month, visiting different countries and learning more about Helen Keller’s work. “I don’t think that’s sustainable over the long term but I also won’t be based in Zimbabwe for the long term,” she said. “This is where my husband is posted now, but we’ll be back in the U.S., probably on the east coast, within the next year or so.”

Since Helen Keller does a lot of work in Africa, being on that continent right now is important for Sarah. “What I see is a story of hope and prosperity that is coming out of the places where normally we have said that’s never going to change,” she said. “People are talking about this innovation boom that is happening in Africa. Living here I can feel it, I can feel how there are  second and third generations of people who have been educated outside of the [African] countries and they are now coming back and they are making connections, and building systems, and they are leap frogging technology. That is happening. There’s still a crisis of good governance being able to hold onto the regulatory environment to be able to allow people to make change happen. But there are problems like that all over the world.”

Despite all the progress Helen Keller has made, Sarah said that backsliding is always a danger. “I’ll give you the example of malnutrition,” she said. “We know that there are 149 million children right now that are in a state where they are not given the appropriate nutrition that they need. There are three reasons that happens. There’s under nutrition that everybody knows about, kids not having enough to eat. But then there’s hidden nutrition or hidden hunger, malnutrition, which is about not getting the right nutrients that you need. That’s happening the world over.” With processed foods being consumed more, people may be getting calories, but not the micro nutrients they need, she said.  In addition, there are about 37 million children around the world who are obese. “The nature of the problem is changing, but it’s global in nature and there are things that we need to be thinking about that are relevant across the world,” she said.

While neglected tropical diseases are being eradicated in countries, more still needs to be done. Neglected tropical diseases are a group of mainly parasitic, viral, or bacterial diseases that may cause blindness, undernutrition and painful physical deformities. Because these diseases are most prevalent in lower income areas, they are often called the “diseases of poverty.” Sarah said the organization still needs to focus on parts of Africa to repeat the success achieved in Asia and the Americas. 

Ajanie King is the one millionth New York City student to have his vision screened by Helen Keller Intl. (Photo credit: Helen Keller Intl) 

Eye health, of course, continues to be a focus of Helen Keller’s namesake organization. Sarah said that eye health is only getting worse as people, especially children, are spending more time looking at their screens. “That’s a growing [problem] especially in Asia,” she said. “It has nothing to do with poverty.” In the U.S., Helen Keller has eye health programs in New York, California, New Jersey, and Minnesota, to reach children and adults through the schools and community-based organizations.

No matter the health challenge, Sarah said that women are key to solving problems. “They are the ones who make decisions about where crops are planted, what’s put on the table,” she said. “We see that almost all of our community health workers are women, the ones who are going out and spreading messages about neglected tropical diseases and about the importance of nutrition. It’s mothers who care for children, bring them into the eye doctor. Those are gendered roles that are common around the world. If we can unlock that piece, we can have a bigger, broader impact for the world.”

Sarah manages self care, to keep up her own spirits, in two ways. On a macro level, she acknowledges the difference Helen Keller is making in the lives of children and families. “It’s happening in our lifetime that we can see progress going on and I think that’s very exciting,” she said. One example: the percentage of babies who die before their fifth birthday is going down. “It does make you feel like, yeah, there’s a lot pushing against us, but you have to look at what’s pushing for us, and then you keep it in perspective,” she said.

For Sarah, one on one encounters with those being helped by Helen Keller, deliver emotional highs. “I have to find those moments and have those conversations,” she said. She singles out meetings with two young boys. In New York, she met Jamal, an eight year old who was getting glasses for the first time. “I knew that Jamal’s life was different after that day,” she said. “He went from not being able to see the blackboard to seeing the blackboard in front of my eyes.” In Minneapolis, she spoke with Brian, who told her he had bounced around from city to city, house to house, and didn’t believe his mother cared about him. But he told her that having her listen to his story made a difference. “I think it’s those personal connections that matter, so try not to only look at the macro, but drill down on the personal connections, too,” she said.

*Photo of Helen Keller from Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library. Photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

Top photo: Sarah in Colombia during her time with the LEGO Foundation. (Photo Credit: The LEGO Foundation)

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About Charlene Giannetti (698 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.