One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure (Part I)

Excerpt from “Wild Hope Now” by Danielle Butin, Founder of Afya.

Soccer Sweetness

Wild Hope Now

While touring a hospital in Malawi, I noticed lots of children sitting outside and waiting in the dirt, pulling at the sparse grass to pass the time. These children were all waiting for a hospitalized parent — often for days at a time — and there were no activities, nothing to bring the children together for play, for joy or relief. The stagnation and sadness of the children was heartbreaking, and though I was there to review the hospital’s needs for medical and surgical supplies, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I’ve learned that when I’m doing a site visit that the environment I need to scan spreads far beyond an institution and its physical walls. Healing also happens outside the hospital, in the community and even in families.

What could change this? What could transform this outdoor waiting room into a field of play?

The timing of Afya’s volunteers often reflects a magnificent synchronicity.

Back in New York, the Straus family contacted me because their son Alex was about to have his Bar Mitzvah. [Part of the ritual includes performing a mitzvah, or good deed.]

When the Straus family came in to meet with me, the hospital in Malawi was on my mind, so I told them about the children sitting in the dirt outside without play or community, and their palpable anxiety. I talked about trying to think of something that could transform the barren space. Alex, with a beaming smile, said, “You know, I play soccer — I could collect equipment from my team… and from other soccer teams…” The ball was rolling, so to speak.

(source: Bing Designer)

It didn’t take much to imagine the impact of a soccer ball being thrown into the mix — the possibility of loud joyous screams, running and teamwork. All that was needed was just figuring out how to collect and send soccer supplies in out next shipment to Malawi.

The key here was not handing Alex a recipe. If Alex wanted to do this, then he would figure it all out — I would support him, his family would help, but this was his project to lead and own — his vision to bring to life. I told him I would email him a file with Afya’s logo if he needed it, but that he was in charge. And because the project was his to manage, it filled his well of goodness and inner sense of agency.

Alex Straus and a few of the soccer balls he collected. (source: Danielle Butin/Afya)

The next thing I knew, Alex’s project was going so well that he was collecting pallets worth of soccer supplies: pinnies [scrimmage vests], cleats, shin guards and balls — all from kids he knew who had outgrown their equipment. The project took on a life of its own: Alex and his dad drove all over town collecting supplies while Alex’s mother soaped up and hosed everything down, letting it all dry under a hot summer sun on their deck, knowing the next stop for these supplies would be a hospital in Malawi.

Of course Alex was in the warehouse to help us pack up all the soccer stuff and stage it for shipment. The New York Times even covered the story, calling Alex’s project “An Inspiration in Shinguards and Cleats.” When the medical team in Malawi unpacked the pallets we sent them, they saw the value of both the medical and the soccer supplies. They understood that the children waiting for their parents needed caring for as well.

Joyce Banda

A year later, Joyce Banda, the Vice President of Malawi, came to visit Afya — a big event for the organization. As we toured the warehouse together, the Vice President turned to me. “I want you to know that Neno — the district you helped with those soccer supplies — was an area faced with great HIV difficulties. The needs were tremendous there, and those supplies changed a lot in Neno. It caught the attention of coaches from Boston. Now we have soccer leagues and tournaments, and it is a big part of life in the district. It grew into more. But it started with those supplies.”

I told her that it was Alex Straus who had led the effort, and she asked to meet and thank him. I found Alex and presented him proudly to the Vice President of Malawi.

“You are Alex Straus?” The Vice President looked surprised and more than a little confused. This 14-year-old boy looked up at her, mesmerized, and responded, “I am!”

“You did all this work for the people of Malawi?” she asked. “This was you?”

“Yes,” Alex told her, beaming. “I am so happy that we were able to send all of those supplies to Malawi — I love soccer and want to help other kids to play soccer too.”

“I am so surprised by your age,” the Vice President told him, “You are a young teenager. You could be playing sports and only caring about yourself, but you have decided to see bigger and find ways to make other people’s lives better. Because of you, we now have soccer leagues in Neno, Malawi. You have changed an area of my country for the better.”

Alex’s imagination, coupled with the free rein he was give to pursue his vision, transformed a barren field of waiting children into a soccer field filled with nets, balls, and invitations to join in play. But the ripples generated by his gift did more than just that. Alex’s project started a chain reaction, and now the medical center sponsors an adult team that has started competing outside the district, with thousands of people coming to see them play.

About Danielle Butin and Afya

Danielle Butin’s life changed with a simple idea on the plains of the Serengeti. At the time, she had no idea it would change millions of other people’s lives, too. Surrounded by poverty, Butin saw how people can die simply due to a lack of medical supplies.

As a former healthcare executive in the US, she knew firsthand about the waste of medical resources in the US. Everything from unused IV lines to incubators are discarded because of regulations. With the insight to match surplus to need, Butin founded the Afya Foundation. For 16 years, her team has been diverting unused medical supplies. They take useful, sterile items labeled as waste and deliver them where they can save lives.

Subscribe to the newsletter so that you never miss an uplifting story of medical humanitarians improving lives worldwide.

About Angels in Medicine

Angels in Medicine is a volunteer site dedicated to the humanitarians, heroes, angels, and bodhisattvas of medicine. The site features physicians, nurses, physician assistants and other healthcare workers and volunteers who reach people without the resources or opportunities for quality care, such as teens, the poor, the incarcerated, the elderly, or those living in poor or war-torn regions. Read their stories at

Interested in writing for Angels in Medicine? Know about an Angel we should interview? Drop me a note at

Leave a Comment