If there’s one thing that’s flowing in abundance at the Al Boe Lions Wheelchair Warehouse in Bellingham, it’s gratitude.
A project of Bellingham Central Lions Club, the warehouse opened in 1991 with the goal of cleaning and fixing donated medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, scooters, manual transfer chairs, crutches, canes, commodes and walkers, so they could be loaned to people in need. The warehouse also loans Hoyer lifts, which are hydraulic devices used to lift and move patients.
Lions Club member Al Boe started the program after he learned that many people need a wheelchair but couldn’t afford one. Boe, who is deceased, led the effort to expand the program, and to build the warehouse that now bears his name.
The warehouse is a hive of activity during the five hours a week it’s open to the public. There are volunteers entering data into computers, sanitizing the medical equipment being returned, and repairing donated equipment that needs attention.
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The parking lot is full as people who need to borrow medical equipment arrive, up to 100 people during the two-and-a-half hours it’s open each Monday and Thursday. For volunteers such as warehouse manager Jerry McLean, there’s never a dull moment.
“Every day I’m here I feel like I’m doing the right thing,” he says from his hole-in-the-wall makeshift office. “People will come in in tears and tell me their husband is in a hospital and they can’t bring him home unless they have a chair and a Hoyer lift. I hear from others about parents who have terminal cancer and have two to three weeks left, during which time they need medical equipment urgently.”
McLean, a retired auto parts dealer, has worked at the warehouse the past nine years. He estimates the warehouse has about 2,500 wheelchairs, but there are many other items, too. Reachers and sock pullers, shower benches and tub chairs, bedside poles and rails, bed-top trays, and chair pads are just some of the items folks come to borrow.
About 70 percent of the equipment comes back, McLean says.
“One of the things I’ve been working on is trying to get pieces of equipment back after three months, so we can circulate them more easily,” he says. “We don’t pursue those items heavily. I have 15 volunteers just to keep this warehouse going right now, and to follow up on all the paperwork and unreturned equipment is too much. But it is disappointing when items we’ve loaned don’t come back to us.”
There’s no screening done when folks come in to borrow equipment, although a deposit is charged on some items, such as power chairs.
Donations that some people make in return for the equipment loan are gratefully accepted.
“But if someone has no money, can’t afford the deposit, for example, we’ll give them the chair,” McLean says. “It’s hard to tell. A person might show up in a Mercedes, but they’re picking something up for a neighbor. We can’t screen people; we have to trust what they say.”
For people who have no transportation and cannot pick up or drop off equipment, McLean recently purchased a retired Whatcom Transportation Authority bus and, with the help of volunteer Darrell Dobson, is able to help.
Walkers, manual wheelchairs, and transport chairs fly out of the warehouse the fastest, with bathtub benches also in high demand. People who need Hoyer lifts have to put their names on a waiting list.
“They’re hard to store and we seldom get them in,” McLean explains.
Spend a few minutes in the warehouse watching volunteers interact with folks who urgently need medical equipment but can’t afford to buy it, and your faith in humanity is restored. There’s kindness in the humble wooden building, where thousands of hours of time and skills are willingly donated.
“What we’re doing at the warehouse is exactly what the Lions Club is all about,” McLean says. “Serving people.”