In the summer of 2007, occupational therapist Danielle Butin took a trip to Tanzania. A divorced mother of three, Butin had recently been downsized out of an executive position at a Fortune 500 health insurance company, where she’d work for more than a decade creating elder- and end-of-life care programs. Visiting Africa had been a long-held dream; Butin took part of her severance and went. While there, she met Western healthcare workers who were frustrated that the supplies in their clinics rarely matched their actual needs. Aware of the large amount of waste in American hospitals – it’s been estimated that operating rooms alone throw away as much as 2,000 tons, or $200 million worth, of perfectly usable supplies – Butin was inspired to act.
When she returned home to suburban New York City, Butin created the Afya Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to collecting and distributing discarded medical supplies: wheelchairs, IV poles, microscopes, hospital beds and other items that may be outmoded but are still of use. Since 2008, Afya (which means “good health” in Swahili) has sent more than 60 shipping containers filled with supplies, worth nearly $10 million, to countries around the world. The foundation has also been on the front lines of disaster relief efforts in Haiti, Pakistan and, most recently, Japan.
Why did you start the Afya Foundation?
I felt compelled to do it. It was an intense call to action. People kept sharing the same problem – they didn’t have the right supplies to deliver the kind of healthcare they otherwise could – and I could see a solution. It seemed crazy to me that supplies here should be headed for the dump when they could be used to help people overseas. I started Afya to bridge that gap.
Other medical supply recovery programs already existed. What set Afya apart?
From the beginning, it was imperative to me that shipments be wish-list based; we’re sending items that have been specifically requested. That was the most effective way of knowing that what we send will actually be of use. I also wanted to think in a bigger-picture way about what “healthcare supplies” means. It’s more than just a syringe: It’s a conference table and chairs, so a surgical team can meet. It’s rain boots, so midwives can deliver an HIV-positive woman’s baby with less risk of contracting the disease themselves. It’s soccer balls, so kids have something to do while their parents are seeing a doctor.
You began by targeting New York hospitals for supplies. Was it easy to get them to donate?
Surprisingly, yes. I wasn't going in with a formal pitch. I spoke on a heart-based level, which made the conversations humane. The message was one that everyone would want a hand in, because they could truly make a difference.
Getting the goods was one thing. How did you find reputable organizations to ship them to?
I’d read Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains – which details the work of Dr. Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health – on the plane home from Africa and was so incredibly moved and inspired, so I started with Partners In Health. I just cold-called them and told them what I was doing and that I wanted to work with them. It took a little convincing, but not much. Our first shipping container went out in March of 2008 to Haiti. By the end of our first year, we’d sent 11 containers carrying over $1.5 million worth of supplies to five countries.
Less than two years later, Afya was among the first responders to the Haiti earthquake. How did you manage that?
The minute I heard the news about the quake, I knew we had to act. Because the first container we’d shipped went to Haiti, Afya was very connected there, logistically and spiritually. By then we’d sent out more than 20 containers, so we had experience taking wish lists and fulfilling them, we had relationships with shippers and we had a track record with Partners in Health. I called our contacts at PIH immediately; three days after the earthquake, we sent out our first 40-foot container.
Afya relies on a large and varied network of committed volunteers. What do you think motivates people to help?
One thing I’ve learned from doing this work is that people genuinely want to help other people. They want to feel connected. They want to feel that they’re doing something of service. And when they see something catastrophic – like the quake in Haiti, or the disaster in Japan – they genuinely want to do something. But they feel powerless; they need concrete ways to give. At Afya we are a mechanism. The most common activity for Afya volunteers is to come to our warehouse and help us sort supplies. It’s rewarding because it’s physical and tactile. It’s great to give money, but doing something physical gives you the immediate sensation of doing something tangible, which I think is very satisfying.
What has been your most gratifying experience since founding Afya?
There have been so many, but one comes to mind. On one of my first site visits in Haiti after the quake, I met an 80-year-old woman named Mamie in Sean Penn’s camp for quake refugees. She’d been caught in a building and buried under rubble; she lost her home and is now living in the camp with her daughter. When we met her, she was sleeping in a tent, sitting on a piece of slate on the ground and desperately in need of arthritis medication. We got her the medicine. We got her an egg crate mattress. We gave her a bathtub seat to use as a stool. She had no shoes, so we gave her socks and Converse sneakers. Every time I’m in Haiti I visit her and bring something, and it’s obvious how much it means to her. And it’s not just about the things. It’s that people cared for her and her needs. To be able to make a difference in the quality of the end of her life is endlessly meaningful to me. She is my muse, and I consider it a blessing.
Karen Schwartz has written for Glamour, Self, Redbook, and other publications. She lives outside New York City with her family.