As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic I had the pleasure of interviewing Howard Schiffer.
Howard Schiffer is the Founder and President of the global public health nonprofit, Vitamin Angels, which took on a major public health challenge when it started in 1994: to eliminate vitamin A deficiency in children under 5, which can lead to illness, blindness, and even death. In 2018, Schiffer announced a new goal for the organization: to eliminate infant mortality surrounding childbirth due to vitamin deficiency diseases by the year 2030. Today, Vitamin Angels provides life-changing vitamins to 70 million mothers and children at risk of malnutrition in more than 70 countries, including all 50 states in the U.S.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
The metaphor ‘melting pot’ was used at the turn of the twentieth century as a metaphor to describe the blending of nationalities, cultures and ethnicities in America. Well in my ‘melting pot’ in the suburbs of NYC 1987, I can tell you that the ingredients weren’t getting along! The hostility, aggression, and fighting were endemic and I hated it. High school broke into cliques and I was always looking over my shoulder. It didn’t feel safe and I left the suburbs of NYC after high school for the West Coast and never looked back. It’s probably one of the reasons I’m so proud of Vitamin Angels’ work. We’ve always sought to serve all nationalities, cultures and ethnicities. We build bridges to bring people together around a common goal; for their children to be healthy.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ changed me for three reasons; (1) The poetry of the writing makes me feel like I’m in the South. It’s so eloquently crafted, (2) Scout is the embodiment of innocence and strength. How she asks her dad about defending Tom Robinson, stands up to the lynch mob, and reaches out to Boo Radley and sees him for who he is, says so much, and (3) Atticus is a beacon of righteousness and standing up for the most vulnerable. Our present day Atticus is Bryan Stevenson. His book ‘Just Mercy’ also shows us a real hero for justice and doing what is right. I think this is what our work at Vitamin Angels is all about –doing what is right and helping the most vulnerable.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
When I was in Guatemala, I was in a small village and met a mom named Carolina. I was talking to her and I asked ‘If your children get sick in the village, do other women come to help you out’. She looked at me and immediately said, ‘Si, El mal de uno es el mal de todos’ (If one is sick, they’re all sick). During these times when we profoundly realize our interconnectedness and see how an outbreak in China can change our lives; it’s a chance to realize our connection. And yes, we all have to take care of each other and we all need to get healthy together.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
Vitamin Angels has always been focused on improving nutrition levels for undernourished women and children around the world. However, with food supply chains being disrupted and unemployment at record levels due to COVID-19, we know the danger of malnutrition will be increasing in the months ahead.
The UN recently issued a warning of a ‘hunger pandemic’ this year. We know this is real since we’re already seeing exacerbated levels of food insecurity and nutrition deficiencies due to the pandemic. This has only heightened our organization’s mission to reach the most vulnerable women and children during the most vulnerable time in their lives; the importance of our nutrition interventions remains crystal clear. We’re anticipating major increases in demand for nutrition interventions this year and we’re prepared to distribute the vitamins and minerals required for those who need it most.
Vitamin Angels is also providing E-learning and technical support to the program partners we work with around the world. We’re training them on distribution skills and procedures (with increased safety protocols) using our newly launched mobile app and alerting them to new recommendations from world-leading organizations. Recently, UNICEF shared about the increased need for prenatal multivitamins (which is what we distribute) to ensure adequate micronutrient intake for expecting mothers who are living in fragile regions during the COVID-19 crisis. Our prenatal multivitamin program is working to meet this need so that women living in communities that are increasingly vulnerable to food insecurity due to the pandemic have access to the essential nutrients they need for healthy birth outcomes. Bottom line is, we’re busy!
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I was a lay midwife in my early twenties and really got to understand the importance of maternal nutrition. This led me to the natural products industry. When I was thirty I ended up getting blood poisoning and almost died. I was in a coma for ten days and came out of that seeing how fragile life could be, that the thread connecting you to this world could snap at any moment, and that I needed to do something really important with my life. By my forties I had a business in the natural products space, but after fourteen years I had lost the passion. I heard a quote from Mark Twain that said; ‘The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you figure out why’.
Then in 1994 there was an earthquake in Southern California, and the vitamin company I owned got a call from a relief agency requesting donations of vitamins for families in the area. My “a-ha!” moment came soon after realizing how grateful my industry contacts were for the chance to make a difference, and after learning how vitamin A, one of the world’s most simple and inexpensive supplements that has the power to dramatically impact a child’s development, was inaccessible to so many children who needed it. I had finally found my ‘why’ and Vitamin Angels was born.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When I was in Guatemala with Carolina (the woman whom I mentioned earlier, and whose two girls had been greatly helped by our vitamins), I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to tell people when I spoke with our donors. She said ‘Yes, tell them thank you that God planted in your hearts to come help people’. Hearing something like this really reinforces the importance of everything we’re doing to improve the health of so many vulnerable families in need of our nutrition interventions.
Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?
Help us get the word out on our work! Vitamin Angels is the best kept secret among organizations doing evidence-based nutrition interventions, and this is not by accident. Our people, programs, and partners are the un-seen, un-sung heroes working on the front lines in some of the hardest-to-reach corners of the world to improve the health of so many vulnerable communities that would otherwise not have access to the healthcare they need. However, in the face of this pandemic and the nutritional aftermath that lies ahead, we’ll need all the support and visibility we can get to reach even more women and children who most need our help, starting now.
Help connect us to businesses who really want to change the world by giving the gift of nutrition to millions of at-risk women and children in the U.S. and around the world, so they can have a healthy, full and productive life. It’s amazing to see what our corporate partners have been able to achieve through Vitamin Angels in these last two decades alone, and we look forward to making an even greater, lasting impact with the help of each new company looking to join our cause.
Help save babies, no seriously! Seven thousand newborns will die today. And tomorrow. And on and on unless we say ‘NO, this has to stop!’ Join our Global Prenatal Campaign. We have the product that can save millions of newborn lives, we just need your support to continue distributing it whenever and wherever it is needed.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Everyone’s life is a laboratory to create one product. I didn’t say that (Joel Roberts, a media trainer I worked with did), but it’s so true! Looking at my life, I can see that being a lay midwife, going into business, learning about marketing and being an entrepreneur, and developing all of these major relationships with people in the natural products industry gave me everything I needed to start Vitamin Angels.
- It is never a straight line. Steve Jobs talked about taking a calligraphy class at Reed when he was dropping out of college and becoming enamored by all of the fonts, which was pivotal when designing the first Apple Macintosh, and giving everyone font options. For me, I almost died, I was out of work when my daughter was 6-weeks old, and I was into refinance loans up to my eyeballs when I realized that the one thing I had that was mine was Vitamin Angels. Trust that you’re being directed if you pay attention.
- What you don’t know can be your greatest ally! Had I known all it would take to build and scale Vitamin Angels, I never would have started. We had no capital, no celebrity, and no credentials when we first started. But we had connections and a lot of passion. People were drawn to us because we are all in. We were fortunate to get so many amazingly talented people to join our cause along the way.
- Don’t self sacrifice! When I first started Vitamin Angels, people would always say, ‘Oh you’re so self sacrificing!’ and I would respond saying, ‘No, before Vitamin Angels I was sacrificing my self because I was doing work I didn’t really believe in!’ The truth is that this work is a joy and a priviledge to do. We are welcomed into people’s homes all over the world who we would never get a chance to meet otherwise. We get to meet their babies, play with their children, and see the life-changing impact nutrition has on families who don’t have access to adequate healthcare or the resources to afford it. Whatever I give out I get back one hundred-fold, honestly!
- Go all in! This may be the most important lesson of all. Passion is contagious! People are attracted to people who are on fire about what they’re doing. Take every chance. Fly across the country a couple of days before Christmas for a meeting that you don’t know will change everything. One of the first major partners we had globally, demanded we ship their first donation by air freight. This almost broke the bank for us. But we knew that they were an important ally for us so we went for it. Today they’re one of our biggest implementation partners and we’re their largest donor!
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious during this tumultuous time? Can you explain?
- Don’t Get Out of Bed — My friend Marshall had a daughter who was at World Trade Center on 9/11. During the hours before he could reach her (she ended up being fine), he made a deal with himself and his maker that he would not get out of bed the next day unless he could do one thing to make this world a better place. This eventually led him to Vitamin Angels and he played a central role in starting our India program, now reaching over ten million children. So don’t get out of bed until you can think of one way to help. Service makes our lives make sense.
- Don’t Watch the News — I don’t mean ever but not every second. We know what is going on and can get an update once or twice a day. A constant feed of frightening stories is not productive.
- Keep a Post-Covid List — Write down the things you want to remember after the crisis is over. It will be over and it can help put this time into perspective and help us remember a lot of the important things we’ve learned.
- Collect Inspiration — Good stories and articles, beautiful and heartfelt photographs, and tender texts from loved ones are wonderful to come back to during the days when you’ve lost perspective.
- Don’t Isolate & Do Feel — This is the time when we need each other more than ever and it’s the time where we need to fall apart and cry and laugh and go through all of the emotions that are washing over us. Reach out via phone, email, or social media and let people know what you’re really feeling.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on society, like you, what would you tell them?
Life is really short. Our time here is limited. This is what we’re here to do — to help each other. And it’s the greatest gift! It really is a joy and I’m continually brought alive by being able to truly connect with people living on the margins. They have so much to teach us about family and generosity and gratitude and kindness. So much!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊
Vitamin Angels is focused on reaching the most vulnerable people on our planet (women and children) during the most vulnerabe time in their lives (during pregnancy and from conception to five years old). As Vitamin Angels has said; ‘Healthy Babies, Happy Moms, Better World!’ It’s pretty simple.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 😊
Beyoncé or Lady Gaga but not for breakfast or lunch — I would want them to come out into the field with me and meet the women and children we are working with!
How can our readers follow you online?
Visit the Vitamin Angels website, www.vitaminangels.org, or connect with Vitamin Angels on social media:
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
To view the original article, visit: https://medium.com/authority-magazine/social-impact-heroes-of-the-covid-crisis-wit-vitamin-angels-founder-howard-schiffer-665e774a7a64