Vitamin Angels, a U.S.-based nonprofit, travels to some of the poorest and most remote corners of the globe to deliver lifesaving vitamins—and hope
photography by Matt Dayka/Vitamin Angels GT14
Monica,a beautiful 29-year-old mother of four from Guatemala, noticed the difference in her third child right away. Mishel, once a painfully shy girl, had started coming out of her shell. The 4-year-old was now singing and dancing around the house, making friends at pre-school, and discovering a love for painting. And where Mishel used to catch every cold going around, Monica observed that her daughter had grown stronger and was hardly ever sick anymore. The transformation began, says Monica, when her daughter was given vitamin A at school, thanks to the U.S.-based nonprofit group Vitamin Angels.
As much as Mishel gained in the way of health and energy, Monica’s two eldest children appeared to lack. Danny, age 10, and Kathy, age 9, are a constant source of concern for Monica. “My daughter Kathy’s face doesn’t look right—she’s pale and thinner than Mishel. She sleeps a lot and seems sad and depressed,” says Monica, who describes her son Danny similarly: low energy, melancholy, frequently sick with a cold or respiratory infection. Kathy and Danny are too old now to receive the essential nutrient from Vitamin Angels, whose vitamin A project focuses on children during the critical window for development from 6 months to 5 years of age when they are most at risk of illness or death from vitamin A deficiency.
Monica and her husband cannot afford vitamins on their own, but they are doing all they can to give their children better lives. Monica’s husband works long hours driving a bus and she recently started adult school on Saturdays in the hopes of gaining a marketable skill. She dreams of buying a bigger plot of land for her children and seeing each of them attend college one day. And while she wishes her two oldest kids had access to vitamin A, Monica is extremely grateful that her daughters Mishel and Brittany, 13 months, are receiving the lifesaving nutrient. “I can clearly see the difference—physically and mentally—in Mishel before and after taking vitamin A, ” says Monica, who adds that many children in her country are less fortunate than her daughters. “I’m very thankful that Vitamin Angels came to Barranca, Guatemala.”
Amid Guatemala’s stunning vistas of volcanoes, mountains, coffee plantations, and tranquil lakes, many of the country’s indigenous populations live in extreme poverty, struggling every day just to put food on the table. With little fruit and vegetable consumption and limited protein options, nutrient deficiencies are rampant, and can mean the difference between life and death. “While foods in the U.S. and other developed countries have been fortified for decades, children in many of the countries in which we work are living off of mono-diets of unfortified corn or rice that contain almost no nutritional value,” says Howard Schiffer, founder and president of the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based charity Vitamin Angels. “It’s called ‘hidden hunger’ because children might be consuming enough calories to survive, but their bodies aren’t getting what they need.”
Vitamin A is the No. 1 nutrient deficiency in Guatemala and is largely responsible for causing the high rates of stunted growth seen in children there. A lack of vitamin A can lead to a host of health issues, from poor immune system function and blindness to even death in some cases. Signs of vitamin A deficiency include dry skin and hair, broken nails, hair loss, scaling of the skin, tiredness, weakness, and increased susceptibility to infections, particularly skin and respiratory infections. “It only costs us 25 cents to reach a child with vitamin A for one year—and this will increase their survival rates by 24 percent,” says Schiffer. “Parents and teachers tell us that children receiving vitamin A and/or multivitamins have more energy, get sick less often, are bigger and stronger than their siblings, and pay more attention in school.”
Vitamin Angels: 20 Years in the Making
Schiffer started Vitamin Angels in 1994, shortly after the deadly 6.7 Northridge earthquake struck California’s San Fernando Valley. “I got a call asking if I could organize the donation of vitamins,” says Schiffer, who had previously worked in the supplement industry for 14 years but felt “something was missing” from his life. “I felt if I died tomorrow, my obituary would read, ‘He sold a lot of products.’ After reflecting, I felt I had more to accomplish, and I knew I wanted to focus on children in need.” Vitamin Angels was thus born, and Schiffer’s life—and the lives of countless children and mothers around the globe—has been forever changed.
Today, Vitamin Angels reaches at-risk populations in 36 states domestically and 45 countries internationally, including India, Vietnam, and Guatemala. The nonprofit’s mission is to help pregnant women, new mothers, and children under age 5 obtain essential vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin A, multivitamins, and prenatal vitamins.
One of the key ingredients to Vitamin Angels’ success is their unique and extensive network of partnerships with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). “Our work is made possible by our 400-plus partners in the field who live this work day in and day out. They are the ones on the ground making each vitamin distribution happen, going door to door sometimes to make sure every family is coming to the vitamin distribution, trekking boxes of vitamins into remote areas by foot or in 4X4s—they are so dedicated,” says Schiffer.
Vitamin Angels’ staff meets with members of each “field partner organization” on a regular basis to monitor projects and oversee technical trainings. In Guatemala, for example, Vitamin Angels works closely with Mayan Families (mayanfamilies.org), a local nonprofit group based in the town of Panajachel. Associates from Mayan Families both organize and execute the twice-annual vitamin A distribution, done at pre-schools. Mothers can bring any children between ages 6 months to 5 years for a therapeutic dose of vitamin A. And at the same time, pregnant or nursing mothers can get prenatal vitamins. On a recent distribution in Barranca,eight children received 100,000 IU of vitamin A; 70 kids were given 200,000 IU of vitamin A; and 13 women took home prenatal vitamins.
Schiffer and his team join forces with organizations similar to Mayan Families in other countries. In the States, the nonprofit collaborates with grass roots, local, and national groups such as pregnancy resource centers and food banks. These partnerships are crucial, explains Schiffer, particularly when working in foreign countries. “When we show up in these villages, we are with those partners who speak the same language, dress the same, and know the customs, so people trust us and know we’re just trying to help their children,” says Schiffer, who makes about five to six international trips per year. “Whatever I have put into Vitamin Angels, I have gotten back a hundred fold. The kindness and generosity that I have been shown by some of the poorest people on the earth, the thanks I've received from the parents of the children, and the friendships I have with people in many different countries, is the greatest gift.”
Vitamin Angels runs both an International and Domestic Program. The group’s domestic work provides prenatal vitamins and multivitamins to moms and children (vitamin A deficiency is not an issue in the U.S.). Internationally, the focus is on distributing vitamin A to underserved children under 5 who live in countries identified by WHO and UNICEF as experiencing moderate to severe vitamin A deficiency. “Mothers love showing us their big, healthy babies thanks to the prenatal vitamins they took during pregnancy,” says Schiffer. “We often hear that babies born to moms who took prenatals are several pounds heavier than their older siblings were at birth.”
A Class (and Charitable) Act
Vitamin Angels operates with the help of corporate sponsors, promotional partners, and product donors, as well as contributions from the general public (see sidebar, “How You Can Help,” left). Well-known supplement manufacturers, including The Vitamin Shoppe, ReNew Life, Barlean’s, Vibrant Health, NeoCell, and Doctor’s Best, are among Vitamin Angels large cache of cash and raw material donors, many of which proudly display the Vitamin Angels' logo on their product bottles. (To see a full list of Vitamin Angels' corporate donors, visit vitaminangels.org/sponsors.)
While some nonprofits have come under scrutiny for their use of donor funds and sponsor affiliations, Vitamin Angels has remained one of the most trusted, transparent, and efficiently run charities in the nation. In fact, they have received six consecutive 4-star ratings (the highest rating) from Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org), the largest independent charity evaluator in the United States. The site rigorously analyzes charities based on financial data such as program expenses. This figure represents the percentage of a nonprofit’s budget spent on actual services delivered. In the case of Vitamin Angels, that number is a whopping 94.1 percent (average program expense ratings fall between 65–75 percent).
“Today, just 30 people at Vitamin Angels are helping to reach more than 40 million children,” says Schiffer. “And more than 90 percent of every dollar goes to our programs. The public can feel comfortable knowing we are responsible stewards of their contributions.”
Vitamin Angels is now the largest distributor of vitamin A to the NGO community worldwide. “We want to get to a point where vitamin deficiency diseases are only in history books," says Schiffer. "Big picture: our hope is that every child, from the day he or she is born, has the chance to lead a healthy and productive life. Regardless of their economic status, every child deserves the chance to be a child.”
This is the same hope shared by mothers like Monica and countless other people around the world. Thanks to the work of Vitamin Angels and their affiliates—the real angels among us—ending vitamin deficiencies worldwide is slowly, one day at a time, becoming a reality.
Nicole Brechka, who traveled with members of Vitamin Angels to Guatemala for this story, is the editorial director of Amazing Wellness.
The Best Job in The World
Like many, award-winning photographer Matt Dayka had a few misconceptions about vitamins. "I thought of vitamins as more of a non-essential boost to a diet, rather than an absolute requirement that could save lives," says Dayka, shown above with a young boy on the street in San Jorge, Guatemala. "The first trip I took with Vitamin Angels was to India, and my eyes were forever opened to reality for the rest of the world. The impacts of basic nutrition were so far reaching. It painted too big a picture to really grasp all at once—having it all sink in took some time."
Dayka has helped to paint a different type of picture with his striking, poignant images of children and families living in some of the world's most impoverished regions. "Many of the places we travel are difficult to witness. The conditions are tough to see, let alone imagine living in," says Dayka, who has taken almost all of Vitamin Angels' iconic photographs. "Instead of focusing on the negative, Vitamin Angels wanted to highlight the beauty that exists even in the most horrible conditions."
Asked how he is able to capture children's innocence and joy in every frame, Dayka says he engages kids at their level. "Each smile in every picture is genuine, and they often come as a result of what's going on the moment before I fire the shutter. Tickle them and they giggle. Make a funny face and they'll make one back." he says. "I love every aspect of my work with Vitamin Angels. I have the best job in the world."
Saving Lives, by the Numbers
45% of all childhood deaths are attributable to undernutrition.
An estimated190 million children under age 5 suffer from vitamin A deficiency, a major underlying cause of child mortality.
It costs just 25 cents to reach a child with vitamin A for one year, and this will increase his/her survival rate by 24 percent.
Multivitamins reduce the effects of undernutrition in children under five, increasing their potential for educational and economic achievements.
Every $1 spent on micronutrient supplementation creates $17 in benefits, making vitamins an incredibly cost-effective way to impact global health and prosperity.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
There are several ways you can help support the work of Vitamin Angels and impact the lives of at-risk mothers and children. For starters, visit vitaminangels.org and click on the “Get Involved” tab at the top of the home page. You’ll find a list of opportunities, including an online donation form for individuals. You can also sign up for the nonprofit’s email list and social media sites, which provide special access to stunning photographs of children and stories from around the world. In addition, this page features a link to the group’s partner/sponsor page—a list of stores, supplement manufacturers, and raw material suppliers that back Vitamin Angels in one form or another. Lastly, check with your local Vitamin Shoppe stores for Vitamin Angels-related promotions and annual Vitamin Angels’ in-store pledge drives (in both May and October).