Africa had been calling me for a long time and the moment I stepped on Tanzania’s earth, tears flooded my face. It instantly felt my life was about to change.
Afya was born on a hot day in the Serengeti Plains, when I noticed a woman crying alone in a tent. I sat next to her and asked why she was so upset. She caught her breath, and said “I am a highly sought-after physician from London, I took a month off to volunteer here and work in the medical clinics. But they have nothing…absolutely nothing. I cannot save children from malaria because there are no IV bags of fluids, no supplies…its empty shelves in clinics. People come in with infected wounds, and I have nothing to treat them with.” Talking about how she felt; her tears came flooding back.
In that dusty tent, I realized there are moments in life when another person’s pain is so raw we experience it as our own. It screams at us to do something. From my work experience, I knew there was a regulation-driven surplus of medical supplies that would land in waste streams back in the states. Witnessing the profound shortfall in healthcare supplies in this incredible country, the idea for the Afya Foundation took hold.
Prior to the fateful departure from my executive position at a Fortune 500 company, I had built a department from scratch and created innovative, award-winning health services for hundreds of thousands of older adults. I loved the work, and credit it with bolstering my knowledge of and profound investment in the design of patient-centered, meaningful healthcare delivery.
Also, having begun as an occupational therapist and with years of clinical work, I was trained to value and believe in the simple act of listening. I witnessed how possibilities generously raced forward when I actively listened and then, felt compelled to act.
Confident in how to lead and inspire others, I knew I had a lot to learn about this specific need and how to best respond. I would need to ask for help. On the plane home, I made lists. Not surprisingly, the executive director of a global health care organization was generous with her time and confirmed the dire need for supplies worldwide. Her team in Haiti became my tutors; years later, in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, they also became our beneficiaries. A full circle moment.
I immediately put my experience in New York City healthcare to use. I knew about the regulations that led to waste and believed that could be intercepted and rescued. Cold calling hospitals to inquire about discarded materials, and walking through winding hospital tunnels, eager to learn about possible donations, their staff wasn’t’ sure what to make of me; however; I needed to see what was possible.
Possible? An immediate opportunity presented itself. I knew the abundance of supplies that were going to be discarded could be rescued and then redirected abroad to sites in dire need. From health crises due to natural disasters or countries suffering from limited resources, I knew these supplies were needed and this could work!
Almost immediately, hospitals started donating. After a minor flooding in a storeroom, a major hospital in New York City offered 27 pallets of supplies. I immediately said yes – not really considering (or caring) about the logistical hurdles I was about to face.
With no storage facility, a semi-trailer sat for three weeks outside my home. The police knocked on the door daily asking when the truck was going to leave. It wasn’t ideal and I knew it would be alright: The trailer was filled with critical supplies destined to change lives. I kept the lives of those who would be helped in my awareness, I walked with them.
Never expecting to find my calling on those sacred African plains, I chose the name Afya, which means “health” or “wellness” in Swahili, in honor of the land that inspired the work. Having all the beginning pieces coming together, I launched Afya in 2007.
We’ve come so far, have learned at supersonic speed, and have grown enormously in the past 11 years. Not only have we rescued and shipped supplies valued at $36 million to 83 countries, we have diverted over 9.5 million pounds from the greater New York waste streams.
I don’t believe in a “one-size-fits-all” aid agenda: Afya has crafted a unique and personal approach to our international effort. Taking the lead from doctors and local leaders in devastated communities, we provide custom relief packages and shipments to ensure patients receive care and support tailored to their specific needs. We listen carefully to the voices of practitioners on the ground and help them stay, where they are supported with supplies.
From the start, it was important to me for Afya to serve as a center for giving back, to become a backbone of goodness for the greater New York community. Impressively, we have established engagement programs and opportunities for volunteers of all ages, backgrounds and capacity to build community at home while supporting healthcare abroad.
From our humble beginnings in my garage to our recently expanded 25,000 square foot warehouse space in NYC, Yonkers and Tarrytown, NY —our local and global footprint continues to multiply. It’s so simple- we are providing pathways for what will be wasted in the US to get to those who are in desperate need worldwide.
We’ve created an amazing, caring community that saves lives and our environment.
Afya (health) and access to care should be a basic human right.
It is an honor and privilege to lead this work.
Danielle Butin, MPH, OTR