Traveling with the Angels
Each year, Metagenics sends two employees along with members of the Vitamin Angels staff to observe the distribution of vitamins and minerals to women and children in need. Vitamin Angels delivers nutritional support to 61 million living in at-risk and underserved communities in 74 countries worldwide.
In November 2017, Metagenics Sr. Manager of the Innovation Product Portfolio Pipeline Cuong Nguyen went along with Vitamin Angels to the Philippines. Here, he shares his experience.
What is your role with Metagenics?
I manage the product portfolio pipeline.
My team and I manage this process to make sure we’re pursuing the right ideas, ideas that align with what Metagenics stands for, make sure that we’re doing it in a safe way, an effective way, and that marketing can plan for it.
What inspired you to apply to take part in the Vitamin Angels trip?
Coming from Vietnam as a kid, when I left, I was almost two. It was on the last day of the Vietnam War, when the marines were leaving in the helicopters. We went to Guam, and it was there that they gave us food, supplements, and all the things to make sure we didn’t die.
Even coming here, growing up on government cheese, thrift store clothes, I had one toy growing up. Knowing how it is to be in that situation and learning about what Vitamin Angels does for the underserved in the world, I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be a part of it because I love Metagenics as a company, and I love the fact that we give to charity. We make nutritional supplements for people who can afford them. It’s nice that we give money to Vitamin Angels. It’s even nicer that we have the chance to travel with them to see how they’re using that money, so I wanted to participate.
What were your first impressions?
Vitamin Angels is an amazing organization. The way Vitamin Angels works, they collect all donations. Then they partner with companies that manufacture vitamin A, deworming tablets, and prenatal vitamins. Now they’re a big organization, but they’re not big enough to do all of the work themselves. It is estimated that about 30% of people in developing countries don’t have access to government health services. Vitamin Angels finds local field partners in each of the areas to fill some of those gaps.
They took us to the slums of Manila. The poverty there was striking. We met Sister Ava, who runs one of the field partner organizations in Manila. We saw them distribute the vitamin A and the deworming tablets. We got to hang out with the kids—I got so many pictures with them. We had lunch with Sister Ava, and I shared some of my food with the kids. In the afternoon, Sister Ava took us to the hospital, the Catholic charity hospital that she runs for the people in Manila.
What was a typical day like?
All day we would go visit kids in the villages to observe vitamin distributions, have lunch, and then visit more kids in the villages.
What was your favorite part of working with the Vitamin Angels team?
The best part was the interviews with the families. We would spend 1-2 hours with a family and really get to know them and talk to them. We had translators for the ones who only spoke Tagalog. We took notes, and we were asked to turn those notes back in to Vitamin Angels to help their team tell the story of how vitamins have played a difference. That’s what our questions were based around: How did the vitamins change your life? We would log those answers so that Vitamin Angels would know that these families are getting the nutrients that they’re supposed to be getting.
What were some of the cultural differences?
In the Philippines, like a lot of other Asian cultures, the family is a very tight unit. The extended family is the family. When we went to these villages, if you look at an area that was like six houses, all six houses—it’s brother, sister, brother.
Many people we visited are not well-educated. The reason they’re not educated is, they have kids early. Then the kids that they have have kids early and don’t finish school either. They work—they fish, they do construction—but then the food that they buy, if you don’t have a lot of money, you have to buy the food that fills you up the most. So they all eat rice—just rice. They don’t have vegetables. They grow vegetables, and then they sell the vegetables because you can buy more rice with that money than eating vegetables. They catch fish, but then they sell their fish because, well, if I only caught a few fish, I need the rice because we have a big family.
So they weren’t eating fish or vegetables. They were losing their teeth; they were vitamin deficient; they were having problems. Because the kids have problems, then the moms can’t work. Someone has to take care of the kids. This whole cycle of poverty keeps continuing.
What I love about Vitamin Angels is to come in and say, you know the way we can break this cycle, the first step, before you can do anything else, if the children aren’t healthy, none of this gets changed. So let’s at least give them a chance. Give them vitamin A, give them deworming tablets, give them a chance to be able to go to school, and then break that cycle. That’s beautiful, what they’re trying to do there.
Did they have clean water?
No, that’s one of the ways they contract worms. We were told not to drink any of the water. Don’t drink the water when they offer it, don’t eat the salad that they wash with water. They brought bottles of water for us everywhere we went.
What was the most inspirational moment for you?
I met this lady; her name was Pauline. She had a daughter. Beautiful family. Pauline told us that when she was younger, she had gone to school. She took two years of computer science classes, but then she got pregnant. Her husband works but doesn’t make a lot of money. But her kid is sick. Malnutrition, worms, the whole thing. Because her kid was sick, she couldn’t work. She lives with her extended family. They could watch her kid, but because her kid is sick, and their kids are sick, they can’t just say, “You watch them, and I’m going to go work today.” It doesn’t work like that. She had to stay home with her.
But her daughter is getting bigger now. Now she’s healthy. Her sister can watch her. Going back to school would be the perfect way to empower Pauline. And she was smart!
So we told Pauline that, and she started crying. She said she knows, that’s exactly what she wants to do, but she recently learned that she may be pregnant again. Now we realize that the chance that she had isn’t going to work out exactly the way she wants. She had a lot of potential, but they love their kids so much, and that’s the sacrifice they make.
I never thought I had to choose. When I want to go to school, I just go to school! She wanted to do it, and it inspired me that there’s got to be a better way. We have to solve this for them somehow. If the new baby grows up to get the right vitamins and the deworming tablets…the problem is, they get worms, they give them the deworming tablets, but they still don’t boil their water, so they’re going to get the worms again. It’s a cycle. If they can teach them, then more people like Pauline can break out, get to the next level.
How do you think the experience will affect your life now that you’re back?
I don’t think I took a lot of this for granted, coming from a third-world country, growing up on welfare, and not having money, but then being where we are now, it’s so different. You forget.
Vitamin Angels works in the United States too. How do we reach out to these people? What can we do to help moms and children survive? To break the cycle? It’s something to think about. It started the gears turning.
Discover how you can support Vitamin Angels at VitaminAngels.org/give.