World Medical Relief: Volunteer local to act global

July 13, 2017  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

Global REACH intern, Public Policy graduate student Yucheng Hou, helps sort donated items at World Medical Relief’s Southfield warehouse. Items and equipment donated locally are shipped around the world to hospitals and clinics in developing countries.

Southeast Michigan may seem like an unlikely source of medical equipment for hospitals in the developing world.

Yet a Detroit-area nonprofit is on pace to ship an estimated $20 million worth of medical supplies this year to clinics and hospitals in places like Haiti, Yemen, and Tanzania. The charity is called World Medical Relief (WMR), a local organization with an incredibly broad footprint, thanks in large part to generous donations from regional hospitals including Michigan Medicine and a host of local volunteers who help make it possible.

“Each week, we’re sending out a 40-foot shipping container with up to half a million dollars’ worth of equipment and supplies to a developing country — places where they’ve got two patients to a bed and the supply cabinets are empty,” said WMR Programs Director Carolyn Racklyeft. “The key to making all of that happen: volunteers, volunteers, volunteers.”

Global REACH team members recently volunteered to help sort donated supplies at the WMR warehouse, an eye-opening experience that any community-minded medical professional — particularly those with an interest in global health — would benefit from.

For decades, WMR has been distributing donated equipment, lab instruments and medicines to developing nations. The organization runs some important local programs, too, providing equipment and affordable prescription drugs to low-income people in Michigan. But the largest part of the operation involves taking in, sorting and repackaging supplies for shipment overseas.

Some of the materials come from individuals, but the vast majority comes in bulk from local doctor’s offices, health clinics and hospitals. Michigan Medicine donated nearly 275 pallets of items in 2016.

These donations have included cardiac stents or other items that have been replaced with new models, or items like underpads that might come as part of a pre-packaged kit but remain unused (and in their own sealed container) even after the kit is open. Sometimes, the hospital replaces equipment in bulk; when Michigan Medicine upgraded from fixed- to adjustable-height stretchers several years ago, World Medical Relief received the health system’s old but still functional gear, about 60 stretchers in all.

“Like all hospitals, situations occur where we change processes, bring in new technology, or replace things as new supplies come to market. If some particular product doesn’t meet our needs and the vendor doesn’t want it back, the question is always, how can this be repurposed?” said Materiel Services Director Frank Krupansky. “Just because the items have no value for us, it doesn’t mean they aren’t useful to someone. Through World Medical Relief, we’re able to help get those items where they are needed most.”

After coordinating donations for decades to World Medical Relief, Krupansky joined the organization’s board of directors three years ago. He’s since garnered a whole new appreciation for the charity, and particularly the volunteers who are the driving force of the operation behind the scenes.

“The number of paid employees is very small, and the task of sorting and packaging is monumental,” he said. “The deliveries are typically large cases that contain who knows what — syringes, stethoscopes, surgical pads, IV tubing … Volunteers have to physically handle each item. It’s tedious work, and it does not stop because stuff comes in every day. It’s an amazing operation.”

Volunteers work six days a week in the WMR warehouse in Southfield, about a 20-minute drive from Ann Arbor. The sorting area can accommodate groups of a few dozen people.

Some medical background is beneficial to identify and properly sort items and attention to detail is a must, as expiration dates on each item must be checked. Expired items, no matter what they are, are not allowed and the organization has to build in the time for overseas shipping.

“Our main concern is that supplies have at least six months left before they expire,” Racklyeft said. “If customs examines the container and discovers even one item that is expired, they could confiscate the whole shipment.”

Interested volunteers should contact Racklyeft to schedule a session in advance. Minimum shifts are four hours and both individuals and groups are welcome.

“We truly appreciate all of our volunteers because they are at the heart of what we do,” Racklyeft said. “When I first started here 30 years ago, I was as a volunteer. Back then, we were doing a shipment every few months. Now we’re doing one per week and it wouldn’t be possible without our volunteers. They help us do a great deal on a shoestring budget.”

Want to get involved with World Medical Relief? Here’s how! 

  • Volunteer: Groups or individuals are welcome on weekdays and most Saturdays. Plan to spend at least four hours. Schedule your session in advance.
  • Donate equipment or goods: WMR accepts donations from individuals, such as crutches, canes, walkers, etc., that are no longer needed in the household. Departments interested in donating equipment or supplies should contact Materiel Services for possible coordination.
  • Connect an overseas partner with WMR: WMR has an application process for hospitals and other institutions to arrange for delivery of donated items. Even though the items are donated, WMR collects a flat $9,000 handling fee per container, in addition to the shipping charges (which vary by destination). There is a separate process for smaller-scale mission-trip supplies carried by individuals. Learn more.