A few days after the January earthquake that left Haiti in ruins, the Afya Foundation of America’s warehouse in Yonkers, New York, buzzed with volunteers speedily sorting huge piles of donated medical and humanitarian supplies. Bundled against frigid temperatures, the volunteers, many of them students from local schools and scout troops, worked with a sense of urgency, loading shipping containers with crutches, syringes, IV starter kits, bandages and more—much of the material recovered from hospitals that would otherwise have discarded it as waste, all of it collected by Afya and now destined for the island’s stricken people.
At the center of the action, Afya’s founder, Danielle Butin, 47, a warmly forceful former health insurance company executive, fielded nonstop phone calls. A local nursing home had 100 mattresses. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme and colleagues wanted to donate generators and lighting equipment. An anonymous benefactor from Dartmouth College offered to use his private plane to airlift supplies to Haiti; a local restaurateur suggested a fund-raising dinner to defray shipping costs—$6,000 to send one container to the island.
“The earthquake was so incomprehensible and intolerable that giving a check wasn’t enough,” Butin says. “People needed a way to act.” Afya (the word is Swahili for “health”) offered them a way. By the end of January, donor institutions and individuals had committed more than a million dollars’ worth of relief supplies. And over 1,000 volunteers had helped fill seven jam-packed 40-foot containers headed for one of the clinics in Haiti run by Partners in Health (PIH), a U.S.-based nonprofit that provides health care to poor communities in 12 countries around the world.
Afya’s prompt and effective response to the devastating earthquake put the fledgling foundation, barely two years old at the time, “on the world health map overnight,” Butin says. PIH, which coordinated medical relief in Haiti, began referring institutions, individuals and charities to Afya. “Until then,” Butin says, “we’d been a mom-and-pop organization with slim exposure nationally.” The referrals brought in more materials, and more funds for shipping them. “We started getting calls from hospitals around the country that had supplies to donate,” she says.
Butin, who trained as an occupational therapist and still teaches the subject at Columbia University, launched Afya (afyafoundation.org) after a trip to Tanzania in 2007. She’d just been downsized from the Fortune 500 health insurance company where she’d created and run wellness programs focusing on elder- and end-of-life care. Instead of moping or plunging into a job search, Butin decided to spend part of her severance package on a long-held dream: a trip to Africa. “For 10 years, I’d been taking African dance classes that were accompanied by six to 12 African drummers,” she says. “That drumming became my heartbeat.”
During her sojourn, she visited Masai healers, hiked through Tanzanian forests and got unexpected glimpses of the challenges faced by health care providers in rural Africa. At a tented camp, she met an English doctor, on leave from her work at a Ugandan hospital, who wept in frustration as she recounted how donated supplies too often didn’t match the clinic’s needs: There would be ECG leads but no ECG machine, let alone electricity to run one. American nurses working at an HIV clinic in rural Tanzania told her they lacked the equipment needed to start IV lines. “I couldn’t understand it,” Butin says. “I knew the stuff was out there, and I knew there was this huge need. I thought, ‘This is insanity! I’m going to do something.’ As an occupational therapist, I’m trained to assess specific health care challenges and meet them. To me, getting surplus supplies to where they were needed was just another challenge, on a larger scale.”