Danielle Butin: Following Her Signposts to Improving Global Healthcare

by Mary Lou Bernardo, PhD, MSN; Published 4/11/08 (revised 11/18/20) © 2008 Mary Lou Bernardo. Photos courtesy of Afya Foundation

Danielle Butin has a background in clinical occupational therapy, academic occupational therapy, public health and managed care. But that doesn’t begin to explain her launching the Afya Foundation, a donation-based clearinghouse for the international health community. What may begin to explain the birth of Afya Foundation is Ms. Butin’s almost spiritual connection with Africa and her belief in “integrating and being aware of the signposts along the way.”

Following Signposts

Danielle Butin

The first signpost appeared ten years ago. It came in the guise of a presentation given by a group of Ms. Butin’s occupational therapy students at Columbia University in New York City. The students presented a teaching class on African dance.

Before the presentation had ended, Ms. Butin knew that this was something she had to pursue.

She began African dancing and drumming. She decorated her office and home with African art. She felt a visceral pull towards Africa and knew that someday she had to visit.

Last summer, when her Department for Health Promotion and Wellness in managed care was downsized, Ms. Butin seized the opportunity of the unexpected free time to fulfill her dream. She went to Tanzania to feel and smell the Serengeti. She planned a trip of pure pleasure.

But while in Tanzania Ms. Butin came in contact with many healthcare workers, and she began to see more signposts. She began following the pattern of these signposts and realized that she could make a difference in the quality of global health. She could make a difference in Africa.

Paying attention to the signposts, Ms. Butin began her journey along the road to international health care. Once she returned from Tanzania, she began to think and marshal her resources.

Founding Afya

Danielle Butin with repurposed wheelchairs.

In October 2007 Ms. Butin began making calls in earnest. Using her academic, corporate and hospital contacts, she established the Afya Foundation to bring better afya — good health in Swahili — to the people of Africa and to other underserved areas.

She contacted hospitals and international health organizations. She contacted individuals and departments. The response was overwhelming. Because Afya’s efforts at medical supply recovery are tailored to each individual hospital’s model of supply management, hospitals responded with enthusiasm. Both the needs of donor hospitals to discard and replace their supplies for whatever reasons and the unique needs of the recipient international health organizations are considered during the process. “I can’t emphasize enough how remarkable the commitment has been, and how it makes implicit sense. It offers up an opportunity to match resources and needs ideally,” said Ms. Butin.

Loading the first container for Haiti.

In February of 2008, duffel bags filled with supplies went with a surgical mission to New Delhi. Also in February, sutures were sent to Liberia to support Physicians for Peace in their efforts at cleft palate repair. On March 13, 2008 the first 40-foot container of unused medical supplies left for Haiti to support the work of Partners in Health. As of early April, the next container is almost ready for its journey to Malawi.

The Afya Foundation’s individual approach has resulted in some unique requests and some non-medical donors. For example, a Haitian hospital connected with Partners in Health requested hospital kitchen supplies as well as medical supplies. Donors from restaurants, hotels and markets stepped up to the challenge, and the container to Haiti contained retired cooking and serving equipment. Now these donors are regular contributors to Afya.

Global Healthcare is Community

Danielle with translator and guide Stephen.

While her approach is individual, Ms. Butin is committed to a community health model. Her goal is “to offer a sustainable model of sourcing….By working with the organizations that are already on the ground, I’m reassured that [donated supplies] are being used exactly as intended.”

Not only is the individual patient or doctor a recipient of Afya, the patient’s family and community benefit from the improved healthcare available. Ms. Butin’s signposts have surely led her along a personal road. But they have also resulted in her founding a unique model of medical and surgical supply delivery.

Afya Foundation was born from one woman’s willingness to be open to possibility. “Be aware and awake to the signs when they appear,” Ms. Butin said. “It would have been very easy for me to have re-entered the world of a more business-minded healthcare position, but I knew that there was another direction for me after being in Africa and person after person came up to me saying the same thing. It was very serendipitous.”

Be aware and be awake to possibility. Good words to live by.

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About the Author

Mary Lou Bernardo, PhD, MSN is a freelance health and medical writer in Branford, Connecticut.

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