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 preschool, 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 nonprofit group Vitamin Angels.
As much as Mishel gained in the way of health and energy, Monica's two eldest children appear 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. Danny and Kathy are too old now to receive the essential nutrient from Vitamin Angels, whose Vitamin A Project focuses on children most in need of the vitamin-those ages 6 months to 5 years.
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 Monica 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 in Mishel before and after taking vitamin A, physically and mentally," says Monica, who adds that many children in her country are less fortunate than her daughters. "I'm very thankful that Vitamin Angels exists."
Amid Guatemala's stunning vistas of volcanoes, mountains, coffee plants, and tranquil lakes, many of the country's natives live in extreme poverty. With little fruit and vegetable consumption and limited protein options, nutrient deficiencies are rampant, and can mean the difference between life and death. "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 to blindness. "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."
Saving Lives, by the Numbers
- 45% of all childhood deaths are attributable to undernutrition.
- An estimated 190 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 malnutrition in children under age 5, 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.
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. Today, the organization reaches at-risk populations in 36 states domestically and 45 countries internationally, including Guatemala, India, and Vietnam. The nonprofit's main focus 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 extensive network of partnerships with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs.) 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 preschools. 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 and know the customs, so people trust us and know we're just trying to help their children," says Schiffer, who makes five to six international trips per year.
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 natural product stores for Vitamin Angels-related promotions.
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. 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 financial and raw material sponsors. (To see a full list of Vitamin Angels sponsors, go to vitaminangels.org/sponsors.)
More than 90 percent of every dollar donated goes to Vitamin Angel's programs. It has remained one of the most trusted, transparent charities in the nation. In fact, it has received seven consecutive 4-star ratings (the highest rating) from Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org), the largest independent charity evaluator in the United States.
Worth it All
Schiffer's goal for the coming year is to reach 40 million children in approximately 45 countries with lifesaving vitamins. "That's 10 million more than we reached last year, which is so exciting," he says. "We want to get to a point where vitamin deficiency diseases are only in history books."
This is the same hope that's shared by Monica and countless others around the world. It's definitely possible-especially with the help of angels among us.