On April 4, 1975, the United States initiated Operation Babylift to evacuate thousands of Vietnamese orphans out of Saigon. But the very first flight, carrying 243 orphans, malfunctioned, forcing the pilot to crash-land the plane into a rice paddy. A third of the children burned to death, while many others were critically injured.

When the Pentagon announced that it would be more than a week before the children could be rescued, Bob Macauley, a paper broker from Connecticut, decided that was unacceptable. He immediately cut a check to charter a Boeing 747 to rescue the survivors, taking out a mortgage on his home to do so. The rescue was successful, and within 48 hours, the children were in California. A few years later, Americares was born.

A mother and baby receive care at the Tamboril Municipal Hospital in the Dominican Republic. The hospital is a long-time recipient of Americares aid, most recently benefitting from renovations in the laboratory and on-site pharmacy, as well as mental health and psychosocial support training for staff. Photo by Jeff Kennel/Americares.

Since its founding 40 years ago, Americares has stepped into crises to fill the gaps, primarily health-related ones. And to do so, they’ve built a broad network of more than 4,000 local health centers around the world that just last year reached an estimated two million people. That investment in local health centers, physicians and nurses is what sets Americares apart from other health-focused organizations, says Rachel Granger, vice-president of international programs and partnerships for Americares.

“Our global network allows us to reach a lot of people on an ongoing basis, and, in some instances, allows us to make a quicker entry into emergencies than if we didn’t already have an established network,” says Granger.

Sometimes emergencies bring Americares to countries where they already have partnerships; sometimes not. But according to Granger, their network almost always expands after an emergency.

At the heart of the organization’s work is its Access to Medicine program. This began in 1981 when Pope John Paul II, having heard of Macauley’s successful rescue mission in Vietnam, asked Americares to help airlift medical supplies to the Pope’s native Poland, which was under martial law at the time. The initial goal of $50,000 worth of supplies ended up being more than $3.2 million worth.

Today, Americares continues to support its global partners with the distribution of medicines and medical supplies donated from pharmaceutical and medical supply companies. Last year, Granger says Americares delivered the equivalent of almost 10 million prescriptions to its various partners around the world, as well as 16 million units of medical supplies.

Read more about Americares work around the world by Joanne Lu at GlobalWA.