Pay it Forward- Vietnam Tragedy Inspires Nonprofit Relief Agency
By Matthew N. Skoufalos
It was 1975, and American involvement in Vietnam was coming to a close at the end of the war. Among the maneuvers designed to evacuate U.S. forces and citizens was Operation Babylift, a program to help South Vietnamese orphans — including those fathered by American GIs — to leave the country with their caregivers.
Robert Macauley was watching the news from his Connecticut home on April 5 of that year when reports of a plane crash from Tan Son Nhat Air Base came on the broadcast. Mechanical failure of a military transport participating in Operation Babylift had ripped the plane apart, killing 78 children, 35 military assistance workers and 11 servicemen.
Macauley was so affected by their plight, he “wrote a bad check that he later had to cover with a second mortgage on his house” to fly the children back to the United States, said Michael J. Nyenhuis, President and CEO of AmeriCares of Stamford, Connecticut.
“It started a series of ad hoc efforts around the world for Macauley,” Nyenhuis said, “where he’d send in a plane [and] get people out, and he in 1982 formalized these efforts by founding AmeriCares as this nonprofit relief agency.”
Macauley was driven by an “urgent sense of compassion to respond to people in crisis,” Nyenhuis said. Today, the core of the organization that he founded retains that same urgency in response to need.
As the nonprofit agency has evolved, so has its recognition that responding at moments of crisis only addresses some of the needs of people in desperate circumstances. Its humanitarian responses have gone beyond urgent needs to include recovery and rebuilding efforts as well as creating long-term channels for driving more permanent changes “to help people transform their health, well-being, and their lives by dealing with persistent disease states,” Nyenhuis said.
“People tend to respond at the moment of crisis, and sometimes we have short attention spans,” he said. “Health crises around the world happen not just because there’s a natural disaster but because the infrastructure there at the time of the emergency wasn’t really very good to begin with. We need to take a very long-term view.”
Nyrnhuis said that 80 percent of the work AmeriCares does “is not [conducted] in emergencies, despite the fact that we’re probably best known for that.” In the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that struck India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, AmeriCares is “putting the bow on additions to a hospital” as part of a long-term rebuilding effort there, Nyenhuis said.
And although the nonprofit often participates in international relief coordinated in places as far-flung as Vanuatu and Liberia, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters hit the United States as well. AmeriCares workers “responded significantly to Hurricane Sandy,” he said, even as their own homes were damaged by the storm.
“We’re proud that our work touches not only the farthest parts of the globe, but the backyards of every American, where people are still suffering,” Nyenhuis said.
Likewise, the public health crises that exist in impoverished communities know no political boundaries. Wherever resources and access to them are compromised, need exists.
“Our fastest-growing program areas are actually in the United States,” Nyenhuis said. “We’re providing more and more donated products and services in the U.S. because the need’s great here.”
Despite the number of people who’ve been able to access health insurance for the first time under the Affordable Care Act, “the number of uninsured [Americans] is still really high and is likely to stay that way,” he said. The lessons learned in those environments have a dual benefit of helping needy individuals within the United States as well as providing a template for aid efforts overseas.
“We run a few model clinics here in Connecticut,” Nyenhuis said. “We have one in El Salvador [and] mobile medical vans in a large slum in India, looking [at] how to best serve people in an urban environment [by developing] best practices … to share with our partners around the world.”
AmeriCares aid recipients range from “referral hospitals in Tanzania to little free clinics in West Virginia that are volunteer-led and serve people who fall through all of the safety nets,” Nyenhuis said. Its partners include hospitals and health clinics in 90 countries and all 50 U.S. states. The group’s deep Rolodex affords opportunities to leverage a variety of partnerships that gets the proper relief aid “to the right place at the right time to meet the right need,” he said.
“We are the number one provider of donated medicines and medical supplies,” Nyenhuis said, with some 200 American companies providing about $500 million worth of inventory, which AmeriCares distributes across its partner network. The agency also turns down “at least an equal amount of potential donation,” he said, “because they might not be the right type of thing that’s needed in the communities.”
“We’re very careful to make the biggest impact for long-term benefits,” Nyenhuis said, which is why, in the event of an emergency, AmeriCares doesn’t have to search for recipients to receive humanitarian aid — “because we’re already likely in that country working with local health institutions.”
AmeriCares also leverages those relationships to drive up the value of its cash donations. Nyenhuis said the company can multiply the impact of every dollar it receives by a factor of 20, dedicating those funds to shipment and transportation costs “because we get the product donated to us.”
“We are regularly ranked near the top of lists by charity watchdogs for the efficiency with which we’re able to deliver program services,” he said. “If you start multiplying half-a-billion dollars of medical supplies year in and year out, we’re making a long-term difference in the benefits of health for people.”
For more information about AmeriCares or to make a donation, visit AmeriCares.org