Doing Good for People & the Planet

Former health insurance executive Danielle Butin saves unwanted medical supplies destined for the dump-and sends them where they’ll save lives.

By Karen Schwartz
Danielle Butin, at a night market outside Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Photograph: Photo: Ed Ou

She estimates that each of the 44 containers Afya has shipped during its nearly three years of ­existence—to hospitals, clinics and schools in Malawi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Haiti—carried at least $150,000 worth of goods, which puts their total value somewhere north of $6.6 million. Of course, on a human level, the benefits to communities Afya has served are immeasurable. “Her supplies ­really allowed the district hospital where we work to begin functioning,” says Keith Joseph, MD, of PIH, who oversees the organization’s work in rural Malawi. “Thousands of people here have been directly helped by her efforts.”

Afya isn’t the only medical-supply-recovery organization sending goods overseas, though it is the only major group operating in the New York metro area. What sets Afya apart is its founder’s occupational therapy training and her personal contact with needy institutions. Butin is attuned to how products can improve patients’ outcome, and she frequently visits clinics and other client organizations overseas—she’s in Haiti every six weeks, Africa twice a year—so she can understand exactly what supplies will make a difference. For example, in Haiti, women whose breasts were injured during the earthquake are getting sports bras (“Compression relieves the pain”); those who had amputations and live in tented camps are especially vulnerable to assault when they go out at night to find a portable toilet, “so we’re sending them commodes,” she says.

Butin’s huge network of young, enthusiastic volunteers also sets her team apart. Last year she received an award from her alma mater, Scarsdale High School, not far from her warehouse, and after the Haiti earthquake the principal sent an e?mail message to all the students saying Butin could use their support. Since then, hundreds of kids have contacted Afya offering their help. One of the teen volunteers took over when a doctor in Malawi who’s also a rock musician asked Afya for musical instruments, thinking his HIV-infected adolescent patients might be inspired to stay on their medications if they learned to play. “This high school kid got a whole community to donate instruments,” Butin says. Another teen volunteering for Afya as part of a community-service project ended up collecting enough supplies to start three soccer leagues in rural Malawi. One group of students raised funds by making bracelets, another by holding a fashion show. And high school seniors who went to Afya in response to President Obama’s call for national service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day are forming Afya clubs on their college campuses to collect supplies and raise money for shipping.

“It makes people feel good to know they can give back,” Butin says. “I’m just helping them do it.”

Despite Afya’s successes over the past three years, some hospitals Butin has contacted have declined to participate and still consign usable equipment to the dump. “Some only collect supplies for their own medical staff’s mission trips,” she explains. “Others don’t fully understand the benefits of our recovery program.” Afya is also constantly scrounging for sponsors to pick up shipping costs. But Butin is unfazed by these challenges. “I am wired to jump over hurdles,” she says.

Besides Butin, Afya’s paid staff consists of four part-timers and only one other full-time person, Sarah Schuyler. “She does everything from loading thousands of pounds of materials into containers to organizing complicated customs clearance with officials in foreign countries,” says Butin. For a year and a half after she launched Afya, Butin lived on her severance pay; her board of ­directors—drawn from the health care, education, nonprofit and business ­communities—has since approved a modest annual salary. “Yes, our lives changed,” she says. “The kids became very good at preparing their own meals.” And they pitched in at Afya. “My son, now in film school, shot video and stills for us, and the girls did all the box labeling in the beginning and still bring in friends to help.”

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