In 2018 we were pleased to salute Afya Foundation and its founder Danielle Butin for vital assistance to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and responses to crises worldwide.
Within hours after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on the morning of September 20, 2017, the island and its 3.4 million residents were plunged into a desperate humanitarian crisis. The entire island was without electricity. Roads were flooded, bridges collapsed, and most of the residents had little to no access to clean water, food, and medical care.
Stateside organizations and hundreds of volunteers, particularly New York’s health care community, were ready to help but faced daunting challenges in getting aid to Puerto Rico. It was the kind of logistical nightmare Yonkers-based Afya Foundation was created to handle.
Afya was founded in 2007 by Danielle Butin, an occupational therapist, to provide regions in need with surplus medical and humanitarian supplies. She was inspired to act while vacationing that year in Tanzania, where she met a British physician on a medical mission who was crying in frustration at the lack of medical supplies. “There is a moment when you hear someone’s story and you know you have to act,” says Danielle. “That was my turning point.” She started Afya a few months later.
Since its inception, the nonprofit has shipped hundreds of 40-foot containers, packed with surplus and donated medical and humanitarian supplies gathered from hospital and health care partners across the metropolitan region, to more than 70 countries facing acute or ongoing crises. Its staff of 14 and 3,000 volunteers have raced to almost every major disaster around the globe over the past decade and also helped resource-poor nations meet medical needs.
Puerto Rico, however, was challenging even for an organization designed to deconstruct challenges. The need was too great to depend on surplus supplies, and Afya wouldn’t be able to get shipping containers to the island, as there was no way to unload the ships.
New York City’s hospital community mobilized quickly—Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA) established New York Healthcare’s Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fund with the Healthcare Association of New York State (HANYS), which raised over $4 million from GNYHA and area hospitals, HANYS, and United Hospital Fund. These funds helped purchase desperately needed medical supplies. In addition, over a dozen hospitals provided supplies and organized volunteerstaffed medical missions.
With the supply chain established, Afya focused on the still-functioning San Juan airport. “We needed donated planes,” Danielle says. She called UJA-Federation of New York, which in turn rallied its supporters. “We got donations of corporate and private planes, and contributions to rent others. We packed all the holds as full as possible.”
Within 48 hours after Maria hit, Afya was delivering medical supplies and pharmaceuticals, including syringes, vaccine doses, medications for tetanus, infections and pain relief, basic first aid, and suture kits. They sent enough insulin for every diabetic child, and chemotherapy for cancer patients. “We became a triad—UJA, GNYHA, and Afya, all fulfilling different needs,” says Danielle.
When the planes arrived in San Juan, Afya’s team connected with local hospitals and leaders to determine where the supplies were needed, then arranged on-ground transport so they weren’t left sitting in warehouses. “The New York hospital community came together immediately to provide help, and Afya was brilliant at the logistics of getting that help where it was needed,” says Lee Perlman, president of GNYHA Ventures. “Afya is essentially a supply chain organization with heart, keeping its partners accountable to get needed supplies where they belong.”
Ultimately Afya organized more than 25 flights to Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, delivering 100,000 pounds of supplies valued at $6 million to some 400 sites of care. A year later, Afya is still supporting recovery and rebuilding efforts. “We’ve become a hub for hospitals that want to donate supplies, corporations that want to give funds, and volunteers willing to give their time and expertise,” Danielle says.
Without Afya’s intervention, and the extraordinary mobilization of New York’s health care community, the disaster in Puerto Rico could have been even worse. Lives were saved, health care provided to the most vulnerable residents of the island. On behalf of the health care community, we are proud to pay tribute to the Afya Foundation, and founder Danielle Butin, for their partnership, passion, and commitment.