Founder and Chief Executive Officer
The vision for Afya began to take shape in a tent in the Serengeti. It was 2008, I was in Tanzania, and my life was in transition. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in that dusty tent, with the distinctive smell of Acacia fires, I was coming face to face with my destiny – my calling.
First, some background. I began as an Occupational Therapist, trained to value the simple act of listening — not to our own voice and thoughts but to the person in front of us. I learned how possibilities generously race forward when people actively listen — with open minds. I brought this perspective to the land that birthed Afya…and listened carefully.
I was in Tanzania following the “downsizing” of my executive position at a Fortune 500 company. Before this fateful development, 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 connection to healthcare delivery.
Africa had been calling me for some time. But I never expected to find my calling on the plains of this sacred land.
The moment I debarked the plane at Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania, my hands reached for the earth. As I held it in my hands and tears rolled down my face, I knew I had arrived and was awake and aware to all that would follow.
And that brings us back to the Serengeti. A woman was sitting alone in the corner of the tent crying. I joined her and asked why she was so sad and if I could help.
She caught her breath, looked at me and said “I am a highly sought after Physician from London, I took a month off from my practice to come here to volunteer and work in medical clinics. But they have nothing…absolutely nothing. I cannot save children from malaria because there are no meds or IV bags of fluids. People come in with infected wounds, and I have nothing to treat them with.” Her tears came flooding back.There are moments in life when another person’s pain is so raw and wrong and maddening that we experience it as our own. And as we accompany them through their pain, it becomes our pain, mingling with our empathy and screaming out at us to do something.That warm summer evening on the Serengeti, I heard the voice loud and clear, compelling me to take action. I was going to start a Not For Profit in the corner of healthcare I knew nothing about…and it was going to succeed. The voice was loud and convincing: this is right, this is good, this must happen.
I knew how to lead, how to inspire and, importantly, how to ask for help. And from years of clinical work, I knew that active listening would lead to remarkable and compassionate change.Mountains Beyond Mountains Book Cover by Tracy KidderOn the plane ride back from Tanzania, I read Tracy Kidder’s book “Mountains Beyond Mountains” that detailed Paul Farmer’s remarkable work building Partners In Health (PIH). I returned home, called PIH and spoke with the Executive Director, Ophelia Dahl, who generously shared an hour of her time. We reviewed the specifics of the work and needs abroad. Her team in Haiti became my tutors; years later, in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, they also became our beneficiaries.A career “downsizing” became a life-altering trip, which led me to identify a profound shortfall in healthcare supplies and a regulation-driven surplus back in the States. The pieces all came together, and in January 2008 I launched Afya. I chose this name in honor of the land that inspired the work: Afya means “health” or “wellness” in Swahili.I immediately put my familiarity with and experience in NYC healthcare to use — cold calling hospitals and asking about materials that are discarded. I walked the tunnels of hospitals, eager to learn about possible donations. The staff wasn’t sure what to make of my poking around, but I needed to see what was possible. I saw more than I could ever begin to describe.The encouraging refrain of my inner voice drove me forward. I knew this would work! I knew the supplies that were going to be discarded, due to regulations and upgraded technology, could be rescued and redirected abroad to sites in need.
Almost immediately, hospitals started donating supplies. A major hospital in NYC had a flood in their storeroom which led to 27 pallets of supplies becoming available for donation. When they offered, I immediately said yes – not really considering (or caring) about the logistical hurdles I was about to face!
Since we didn’t have a warehouse to store the equipment and supplies, a semi-trailer sat for three weeks outside my home in Westchester County. It wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t care – it was filled with critical supplies destined for a second life.
We’ve come so far and grown so much in these past ten years. From our humble beginnings in my garage to our recently expanded – 17,000 square foot – warehouse in Yonkers, our local and global footprint continues to expand!
Today, with a staff of 14 and 3000 volunteers annually, we continue to serve those in need with the same compassion that inspired Afya’s vision ten years ago on the African savannah.
We listen carefully and take the voices of those in the lands we serve seriously. We respond to their expressed needs with supplies. We support the infrastructure of a nation’s health care system; instead of building a separate clinic, we empower and strengthen that which exists. Further, we strongly believe that these principles, and the life-saving supplies we provide also contribute to the retention of healthcare workers in resource-poor areas.
Our contribution to improving global health comes in the form of supplies that save lives and create possibilities that change the narrative in underserved healthcare systems around the World. We RESCUE usable medical supplies and equipment, and we DELIVER them abroad, where they save lives and improve health outcomes for millions.
But nothing would be possible without help! We needed lots of help to SORT supplies in the warehouse and pack shipping containers. Initially, I spread the word with friends and their children. Middle and high school students started showing up in droves! Kids could play a significant role in saving peoples lives and it spoke to them powerfully. And then, the OT in me had an “aha moment.” What if I could find a way to welcome those with psychiatric and developmental disabilities to volunteer at the warehouse? What if those with great life challenges and struggles – young people with histories of abuse or prison – could be welcomed in, to give back?
Within the first year of Afya’s life, I started a unique volunteer experience that is now led by graduate OT students, who I supervise, from across the country. It’s a win-win. Thousands of volunteers give their time and effort to helping others and ultimately themselves. Altruism is a powerful catalyst for personal change!
A piece of the larger story, a favorite of mine, is the fact that recipients of our supplies will never know how hard a group of people in NY are working on their behalf. The hands of children, seniors, disabled adults, corporate teams, religious organizations and so many more are the last ones to touch supplies that will be used by healthcare practitioners across the Globe to deliver better health care.
We believe health care is a human right – a right that belongs to each of us regardless of wealth, geography or politics.
I am humbled and proud to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Afya. To the many groups and individuals who have worked and continue to work tirelessly to rescue, sort and deliver medical equipment and supplies for underserved healthcare systems around the world, ASSANTE! (THANK YOU!)