A Ridiculously Easy Way to Give Back While Traveling

Reading: Save Lives When You Travel

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Save Lives When You Travel

Pack your extra bag with aid for others

By Lesley Jane Seymour

Ten years ago occupational therapist Danielle Butin, 43, was searching for her second act.

When she discovered that billions of dollars of perfectly good medical equipment was being tossed into landfills, she also discovered her true calling. She founded AFYA(which means “health” in Swahili), a not-for-profit that takes football-fields-worth of unused sutures, sterile gauze, syringes, catheters, and plastic tubing that Butin has gathered and ships them around the world to countries in need.

She even shipped an ambulance to Haiti.

But all that shipping costs big bucks. So Butin came up with an ingenious way to spread the costs—and the joy—of saving lives.

Know that extra 50-pound bag you’re allowed to check on most international flights? AFYA will fill it with $800 worth of sterile medical supplies (no medications) that you can drop off at a needy clinic at your destination. (The only exceptions: Canada and certain countries of Europe which have adequate health-care systems.)

“In 2016 we sent a 40-foot freight-container’s worth of supplies to 29 nations that impacted 125,000 individuals,” Butin says. “Whether you’re going to Jamaica, Ukraine, Ecuador or Mexico, your family can transport a bag that will literally make the difference between life and death, because many of those countries don’t even have gauze for wounds or sutures to sew people up.”

For example, Butin says workers on the island of Lesbos asked for 14,000 pairs of medical gloves to help them care for Syrian refugees arriving by boat.

The idea for Luggage for Life came to Butin as she traveled in Tanzania in 2007. “We were meeting people in Dar es Salaam and going north the next morning,” she says. “I asked the concierge at the hotel for the nearest health center and took a cab there with my bag of supplies. When I arrived, a woman was being carried out, screaming and flailing because her mother had just died. It was a moment of horrific grief. The nurse asked me, ‘What do you want from us?’ I said, ‘Nothing’ and handed her the bag. She opened it and told me that the mother who had just died could have been saved by what was in this bag.

“I went home and cried that I hadn’t arrived earlier. But ultimately, I knew that I was supposed to see that daughter and her grief. You can’t overestimate the impact of these supplies and their ability to save a life.”

Danielle provides crutches to a boy who lost his leg after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

Here’s how Luggage for Life works: After you make your travel plans, call or email ahead to the hotel concierge (or your travel agent if s/he is located in that country) and enlist that person’s help. You want them to reach out to the nearest health-clinic and ask: If someone could bring you a bag of surgical supplies, would you be interested and what exactly would you need?

“The goal here,” says Butin, “is to find out what clinics really need; we don’t presume to know.” Then forward that information to AFYA; for $125 they will pack a nylon bag full of the needed items and ship it to you to take overseas. (Or stop by the AFYA warehouse in Westchester, NY, and pay only $100. The cost is tax deductible.)

AFYA gives you a no-hassle customs clearance letter that Butin says has never failed because the bag “is considered a charitable donation.”

If you don’t happen to be traveling, you can underwrite the cost of a Luggage for Life bag that will accompany relief workers or medical missions in under-resourced areas. “After a disaster, self-funded Emergency Medical Technicians will call us to say, ‘Twenty of us are going to Haiti or the Philippines.’ We can give them bags of supplies that are underwritten,” says Butin. She adds, “Luggage for Life allows a lot of people to make a contribution in a way they have never thought of.”


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