‘It’s grown to the point where we can’t function in the existing space we have’

Lions member Darrell Dobson helps Rita Stephenson of Sedro Wooley look for a chair for her husband at the Bellingham Lions Club Wheelchair Warehouse in 2015.
Lions member Darrell Dobson helps Rita Stephenson of Sedro Wooley look for a chair for her husband at the Bellingham Lions Club Wheelchair Warehouse in 2015. The Bellingham Herald file

For more than a decade the Bellingham Central Lions Club’s Al Boe Wheelchair Warehouse has offered support for those with mobility issues and other medical equipment needs, helping an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people per year.

In fact, the program has been so successful, it has simply gotten a little too big for its britches — or at least the building that houses it.

“It’s grown to the point where we can’t function in the existing space we have,” Bellingham Central Lions Second Vice President Ron Miller, who manages the Wheelchair Warehouse, told The Bellingham Herald in an interview last month.

The warehouse, which began loaning wheelchairs, walkers, canes, shower chairs, bedside commodes and other durable medical goods to area residents that need them approximately 15 years ago, according to information provided by Bellingham Central Lions member Ken Henderson in an email last month to The Bellingham Herald, has out grown the building in which it’s housed.

The facility, located at 4141 W. Mapelwood Ave. near Bellingham International Airport, has become so crowded that volunteers now must move some of the equipment they loan out of the warehouse and into a tent every day it’s open just so volunteers and those seeking equipment can walk around.

The solution, of course, is to expand, and that’s exactly what Miller and the Lions hope to do. The club is actively working to raise funding for a project that would double the size of the approximately 1,700-square-foot facility by this summer.

Henderson, who is tasked with raising money for the expansion project, told The Bellingham Herald in an interview last month that the club has submitted an application to the Lions Club International Foundation for a $57,000 grant.

Henderson said he hopes the Wheelchair Warehouse will receive that grant by the end of January and will have already raised matching funds from local donations, foundations and other sources to allow construction on what’s expected to be a three-month project to begin in February.

“Right now, we have an efficiency problem,” Henderson told The Herald. “The flow is so constrained in our current facility, we end up having a big crowd because people can’t move around.”

While creating space for the warehouse and its equipment is the top priority of the more than $100,000 project, which Henderson said has already been permitted by the county, it’s definitely not the only goal.

Also included in the project, Henderson said, are plans to include a new handicap-accessible bathroom, make sure all doors are wide enough for people in wheelchairs and improve the gravel parking area, including increasing the accessibility of the handicap spots.

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Manager Jerry McLean helps customers at the Al Boe Lions Wheelchair Warehouse in Bellingham in 2015. The warehouse is open Mondays and Thursdays 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and loans out free wheelchairs, walkers and other equipment to those in need. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

“We have a handicap parking space, but right now it’s all gravel and there isn’t a path to the building,” Henderson told The Herald. “We’re going to try to organize the parking lot so people aren’t parking so helter skelter out there. ... We’re going to make sure there is a path for the handicapped to get to the building and a bathroom they can use while they’re here.”

The information provided by Henderson said the enlarged building also will include storage space for some of the Central Lions’ other community service programs, including the Bellingham Lions Eyeglass Recycling Project, that have been moved elsewhere to create room for the successful medical equipment loan program.

“Over the last five or six years, the government has increasingly restricted what’s covered and the way medical equipment like wheelchairs and walkers are available to people with lower incomes,” Henderson said. “They don’t cover them the way they used to. A lot of programs are just flat out eliminating it. That’s when we saw a big rise in the numbers of people looking for wheelchairs and walkers and other medical equipment.”

Miller said he also believes more people are now getting hip and knee replacements now, creating even larger demand for the mobility equipment for people of all income levels.

“I would say 70 percent of our people are now coming in with new hips or knees and with notes from their doctor,” Miller said. “Usually it’s a walker or this and that or crutches, and off they go.”

Miller estimated the warehouse has approximately 900 wheelchairs out on loan now.

Though there is no charge to borrow equipment from the warehouse for 90 days, which can be extended if needed, the warehouse receives about $28,000 in donations annually, Henderson said. They also accept many donated medical items, though the warehouse only attempts to connect people needing hospital beds with those who have them rather than trying to store the beds in the warehouse.

The program has no paid staff members, and Miller estimated it takes about 3,000 volunteer hours a year to run the warehouse, which is open from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Mondays and Thursdays.

“We get 10 to 12 people working out there every day we’re open, and amazingly, half of them are not Lions members, but they appreciate what we do so much,” Miller said. “They just want to help. I can foresee a time, if we can get the help and the time, where me might open for a third day after this expansion. But that’s something for down the road. First we need to get room to work.”

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.