Seeing the most vulnerable — Before it was always the ‘others’ who had to deal with these crisis; the people in Sierra Leone who had Ebola or the gay community who struggled with the AIDS epidemic. Now it’s all of us and there’s a window into standing with the most vulnerable. Our lives have been disrupted, no question. But think about if you were living in New York in the epicenter, or in India where social distancing is impossible, or were homeless or in a detention center. This is a chance to remember our common humanity and who the most vulnerable really are.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, 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 mothers and children at the risk of malnutrition in more than 70 countries, including domestically in the U.S.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Iwas 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, the vitamin company I owned got a call from a relief agency needing vitamins and Vitamin Angels was born. I had found my ‘why’. Twenty six years later, Vitamin Angels has grown into a global organization that reaches nearly 70 million undernourished pregnant women and children in over 70 countries, including the U.S., with essential vitamins and minerals.
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.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective, can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
The fear, grief and anxiety are the normal response to our present crises. And there’s so much to be hopeful for:
- An abundance of goodness — Every day all over the planet front line folks (doctors, nurses, first responders) are showing up in life threatening situations to help. Musicians are streaming live mini concerts daily to uplift people. Beer makers are using growlers to produce hand sanitizer. Coffee shops are selling inventory people could use (staple supplies or toilet paper) at cost. Restaurants are offering free food to emergency responders. And so much more. Amidst this health crisis, there is an abundance of goodness.
- Social distancing BC (before Corona) — This morning I woke up and realized how much I’d miss my wife when we went back to our ‘regular’ work schedules. Then it dawned on me — we were ‘social distancing’ before, except it was with the folks we love the most, our families, and we were instead calling it ‘work’. The virus has reminded us that our families and friends and loved ones are the center of our universe.
- Eyes wide open — I think we will all come out of this with a newfound appreciation for a return to an ‘average’ or a ‘normal’ day, and a tremendous amount of gratitude for the simple things in life. Just being able to walk into a store, or shake hands with someone, or be able to watch a live concert with friends will take on a whole new meaning.
- Seeing the most vulnerable — Before it was always the ‘others’ who had to deal with these crisis; the people in Sierra Leone who had Ebola or the gay community who struggled with the AIDS epidemic. Now it’s all of us and there’s a window into standing with the most vulnerable. Our lives have been disrupted, no question. But think about if you were living in New York in the epicenter, or in India where social distancing is impossible, or were homeless or in a detention center. This is a chance to remember our common humanity and who the most vulnerable really are. This is also why, despite these difficult circumstances, Vitamin Angels’ work is continuing around the world (as long as it is safe to do so) because we believe we must help protect the most vulnerable among us now more than ever.
- Importance of nutrition — At Vitamin Angels we know how basic nutrition can change and save lives. We see it every day. Right now, there’s a ‘sourdough breadmaking’ craze that is sweeping the country. People are starting to plant the 2020 version of ‘Victory Gardens’. And school gardens and nutrition classes are a hot topic. This is a time when we can all remember that good nutrition is a centerpiece of good health and global health!
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? 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.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
Only rely on trusting sources of sound information like CDC. And search for balance. A funny movie that makes you laugh hysterically or a video of the Berklee College of Music students playing ‘What the World Needs Now is Love’ that brings you tears are equally important. And remember meanwhile life goes on. Sprouts are still coming up, birds are still building nests, and waves are still washing up on the shore. Our lives have been disrupted, some have changed forever and we will get through this.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
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.
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.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Visit the Vitamin Angels website, www.vitaminangels.org, or connect with Vitamin Angels on social media:
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!