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Bedtime Routines

Margaret Reilly McDonnell, Executive Director of Nothing But Nets

Woman reading to her kids in bed.
Written By
Parachute Team
Photographs By
Chris Barclay
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Social responsibility has been integral to Parachute from the start. We partner with Nothing But Nets, a global, grassroots campaign created by the United Nations Foundation to donate life-saving malaria prevention bed nets. For every Venice Set sold, we donate a bed net to this wonderful organization. To date, we've donated over 51,000 bed nets to those in need. Our partnership wouldn't be possible without Nothing But Nets Executive Director, Margaret Reilly McDonnell. With an illustrious career in the nonprofit sector and three beautiful children, we wanted to know more about her work as well as her home life. Here Margaret shares how she unwinds at home with her family and her hopes for 2021. 

Tell us how you got involved with the United Nation Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign?

I’ve never been someone with a clear long-term plan but my interest has always been working with and helping people have a better life. I’m fascinated by people and love getting to know people of varied backgrounds and cultures. I had eclectic work experiences for the first 10 years out of college- from working on a dude ranch in Wyoming to organizing communities in SE Alaska around environmental legislation to supporting reproductive health programs in sub-Saharan Africa to helping nonprofits fundraise for their various missions. 

Flash forward, after finishing graduate school in public policy, I had the chance to visit Uganda and witnessed firsthand how malaria was affecting families night after night. We met with mothers whose children were getting sick from malaria every few months but how after receiving a bed net, their kids were staying healthy- meaning that they could go to school and the parents could work uninterrupted. I was struck with how something as simple and inexpensive as an insecticide-treated bed net (at the time they were $10 each, now they’re even less) that protects kids and families from being bitten by malaria-carrying mosquitoes at night, could be so life-changing and catalytic. This experience, compounded by becoming a mother myself, compelled me to work full-time to end the nightmare of malaria for parents and families around the world. 

Can you share more about your day to day with Nothing But Nets? What initiatives are you working on?

One of the things I love about my job is that it’s quite varied, sometimes unpredictable and no day is exactly the same. Nothing But Nets is a small but mighty team. We do a lot to include fundraising from grassroots, major donors and corporate partners; directly supporting the UN and our partners to protect the most vulnerable people- from marginalized indigenous people in Ecuador to people who have been internally displaced in Nigeria; and advocating to members of US Congress about the importance of funding malaria programs and advancing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It’s all about teamwork so we have a decent number of meetings (now zoom calls) to brainstorm, discuss, decide and figure out our action plans looking ahead. Aside from 2020, there’s usually a decent amount of travel- whether it be to NYC for the UN General Assembly meetings, or to a conference or consultative meetings with partners in Seattle or Geneva, or to visit malaria prevention programs in Africa, LAC or Asia alongside congressional staff, donors and partners. Currently, we’re advocating to Congress for strong robust funding for malaria programs AND as part of our #HealthforHolidays initiative, we hope to raise enough funds to protect 150,000 people from malaria. 

What travel destination has left the most lasting impression on you?

I’ve been really fortunate to travel to many places for my job throughout the US and the world. They’ve all been amazing in their own right but a particularly poignant trip was traveling to Tanzania a few years ago. It’s an incredibly beautiful, vibrant and welcoming country. We had a wonderful experience visiting a school near Mwanza on the shore of Lake Victoria. It was a gorgeous setting but more striking was the tireless commitment of the principal, teachers and students to keeping kids, their families and the entire community educated, safe and healthy. The principal shared with us that malaria had been the #1 reason that kids missed school so they had undertaken significant efforts to combat malaria. They implemented a curriculum to further educate students about the threat of malaria and with support from the US-funded President’s Malaria Initiative, were able to provide bed nets for each family to help keep them safe from malaria. The students were armed with the knowledge to become change agents in their families and communities, towards the goal of decreasing malaria cases and deaths. It was really powerful to witness firsthand.

How has Nothing But Nets adapted and changed due to the pandemic?

When COVID-19 was first declared a pandemic, the World Health Organization offered a devastating warning that malaria deaths could DOUBLE in 2020 – taking us back to levels in 2000 – if malaria programs were significantly delayed or disrupted. COVID-19 has presented many challenges- such as discouraging people from seeking care at health facilities; confusion over symptoms (as fever is an initial symptom for both COVID-19 and malaria); and having to adjust protocols such as going from families lining up at community centers to receive bed nets to health workers having to deliver them door to door, which is more labor, time and cost intensive. Long story short, thanks to strong endemic country leadership, the commitment of frontline health workers, the flexibility of donors such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and the President’s Malaria Initiative, and partners coalescing and working together, we’ve been able to overcome many of the challenges and will avert the worse case scenario. That said, we cannot take our foot off the gas pedal and need to move full steam ahead with our ambitions of ending malaria for good. 

What are you looking forward to most in the year ahead?

Oh my! It’s hard to know where to begin as I’m looking forward to so many things! I look forward to the complete rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine to protect Americans and vulnerable people around the world; kids and teachers being able to go back to school; and to rolling up our sleeves to do the really challenging and critical work of addressing systemic disparities and inequalities in our country and around the world. I look forward to visiting family members (especially my baby niece who lives cross country!), dear friends, and colleagues and to exploring new places- whether that be national parks here in the US or new countries through work or family trips. 

I’m hopeful that COVID-19 has made it really clear to people that diseases know no borders and that funding to fight disease and advance global health are smart and essential investments. That it’s unacceptable that anyone gets sick or dies from a preventable, treatable disease. And that it’s a total injustice that children, pregnant women and marginalized people – particularly those living in Africa, Latin America or Asia – die from mosquito bites. 

Margaret reading to her two kids.

How do you unwind in the evening with your family?

I have three young kids (5, 7 and 10) so my evenings are fairly hectic until my kids are asleep. Bedtime is a sacred time in our house. After putting on pajamas and brushing teeth, we read a few books together before singing a few songs – our current favorites are Little Drummer Boy and Sunflowers by Post Malone. Especially after a long day, it’s hard to beat bedtime when you know your kids are safe and sound in their beds and you’re finally able to have some time to yourself. For me, that typically includes enjoying a glass of wine while listening to music or watching a favorite show with my husband. 

I often think about how while bedtime is a time of relief and peace for me, it’s a stressful time for many parents around the world as they have to fear their kids being bitten by malaria-carrying mosquitos while they sleep (since nighttime is when they most often bite). This is why my team and I work so hard to provide as many families as possible life-saving insecticide – treated bed nets – so that they can sleep safely and soundly at night.

When you can’t sleep you….?

I usually don’t have a problem going to sleep at night as I’m a morning person and wake up early. If I wake up early and haven’t gotten at least six hours of sleep and know I need to sleep more, I’ll attempt a meditation using Insight Timer, which often does the trick. If I’ve gotten more than six hours of sleep, I’m often rearing to go and get started on the day with a yoga session or walk around the neighborhood listening to a podcast. I’ve particularly enjoyed my solo walks during the pandemic – fresh air is key to keeping myself healthy – physically and mentally. 

Do you have a go-to midnight snack?

My favorite midnight or middle of the night snack is a simple bowl of cereal. There’s something comforting about cereal. Perhaps because it’s timeless and something that’s cherished from childhood through adulthood. 

We think a bedtime table reveals a lot about a person. Can you share what you keep on yours?

My efforts to keep my bedroom and bedside table as simple and decluttered as possible are ongoing- it’s been a lifelong challenge. I’m an ambitious person and sometimes unrealistic so there are often at least three books that I’m attempting to read at a time on my bedside table. I always have a glass (or three) of water on my bedside as I like to stay hydrated. 

Unfortunately, I keep my cell phone on my bedside table and one of my goals for 2021 is to keep it charging in another room! I usually have a few pieces of art work that my kids have recently made for me – currently there’s a “memory box” from my 7 year old. She’s told me to put my favorite mementos from each day inside it, which is really sweet.