Get Inspired: An Angel Among Us

Howard Schiffer works in some of the most devastated places on Earth—hotspots where a bout of diarrhea can mean certain death for a child. But the founder of Vitamin Angels, a Santa Barbara, California–based nonprofit that provides malnourished children and women with essential nutrients, didn’t start out as a crusader for kids’ health. We talked with Schiffer about reinventing himself in midlife, finding inspiration in the young, and saving the lives of millions.

How did you make the jump from business to starting a nonprofit?
I was in my 40s, my kids were getting older, and I woke up one day and thought, If I die tomorrow, what will people remember me for? Business just wasn’t a reflection of everything that’s important to me. I kept thinking that if I could get good nutrients to people who need them, I could probably have a positive effect. In 1994, Vitamin Angels received 100,000 donated vitamin tablets. This year, we’ll get essential nutrients to 20 million children and moms.

Why vitamins?
Twenty-five percent of all children who die every year die in the first 30 days of their lives. We give children a high dose of vitamin A—which costs only 25 cents and increases survival rates by 23 percent—or we give them a year’s supply of children’s chewable multiples. Or a woman may receive 360 prenatal vitamins to take her completely through her pregnancy and six months into the baby’s infancy.  

How dire is the global health situation?
Think of it this way: What would you do if you opened up the paper tomorrow and the headline read, “One Hundred 747s Have Crashed, All Children On Board, No Survivors”? And the next day was the same thing, and the next day, and the next day. How long would it take for every government in the world to say, “This has to stop”? And yet, that’s what is happening.About 27,000 children are dying daily—mostly from preventable causes like common infections, measles, and diarrhea. We are not OK with kids dying when we have the solution.

What’s the biggest challenge you face?
A lot of these areas have been hit by natural disasters—earthquakes, floods, extended drought. And the people we’re working with are very vulnerable. The question is always whether we can reach them in time. The worst thing is getting to a place and seeing a child who’s gone blind from vitamin A deficiency and realizing that, had we gotten there three or six months earlier, she would be OK.  

What is it like to save millions of lives?
It’s quite remarkable once you start getting moms and children on vitamins. They’re healthy, they’re bigger, they’re fatter, they’re taller. And when women don’t have to have 10 babies to have four survive, that can fundamentally change a society. Population density goes down and parents have fewer mouths to feed, so nutrition levels go up, economic well-being increases, and education improves.

We go into the most horrible conditions you could imagine—raw sewage in the streets, dead rats, a horrendous stench—and kids are playing. They’re just so thrilled you showed up. I get to have this real connection with people. What a great thing to do with your life—to find one thing that makes a difference