Pay it Forward: Project Mend

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One of the biggest obstacles to supporting disabled Americans is raising awareness of the ubiquity of the conditions of their lives, said Denise Bennett, Development Director for Project MEND of Austin, Texas. Unless people know someone in the family who faces such issues or whose lives have been touched by them, the disability community “tends to be invisible,” she said.

“Disabilities don’t get funded unless it’s kittens, puppies, or children,” Bennett said. “When you do fundraising, unless you have somebody in a chair, holding a puppy, it doesn’t attract a lot of attention. People don’t want to go there in their minds.”

But pediatric patients only comprise about seven percent of the persons served by Project MEND; half the number of adults the program reaches, less than half the number of veterans, and one-seventh the number of its senior clients. The largest and oldest nonprofit medical equipment reuse facility in Texas, Project MEND is licensed by the Texas Department of State Health Services to provide reusable medical equipment. The agency maintains a warehouse in San Antonio and a headquarters in Austin; both are inspected annually and clients must have a prescription for the equipment they’re seeking.

Volunteers and a small staff manage the warehouse, a pair of full-time technicians, and a part-time technician. Operating funds are scarce enough that the agency is still seeking funding to return another part-time technician to work there.

“A lot of the DME companies have finally figured out that we’re not their competition,” Bennett said. “We’re serving a completely different clientele: people who are uninsured, underinsured, maybe in between jobs; senior citizens for whom maybe Medicare covers two pieces of medical equipment but they need multiple pieces of equipment to stay in their home. Oftentimes we’re filling in the gaps for people whose insurance may not be available.”

About 10 percent of the donations gathered by Project MEND come from a cooperative partnership with Goodwill Industries, which gathers them through its regular operations, Bennett said. Donors also include community members, hospices, nursing homes, retirement facilities, and churches. Individuals with a relative at the end of life, or with children who outgrow their equipment, are also frequent contributors.

Despite the volume of those donations, the agency is not always able to meet the needs of the people who connect with it. This year, Project MEND is operating a new program that secures donations to stock its shelves in order to meet that recurring demand with an inventory of medical equipment that helps make up the shortfall.

“We turn away approximately seven people a day because we don’t have the particular piece of equipment they need,” Bennett said. “This week I might get 10 wheelchairs in the door; next week I might get zero, but the need and the demand remains pretty consistent.”

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“Since we recognize that demand outpaces supply, we have been going to certain foundations to buy brand new wheelchairs and hospital beds, which are our most requested items, so we can build up a stock,” she said. “But there’s a time delay; there’s this flux between what equipment gets donated on a daily basis and refurbishing the equipment [to put it back in service].”

Other partnerships help the organization secure dollars for customized assistive devices that are specific to the patients themselves; prescriptive cranial devices – which are considered cosmetic, and which are not covered by insurance, Bennett said – are customized to the heads of individual children who need them. For those clients, Project MEND established an assistive technology fund that dedicates as much as $1,000 annually for any child who has any need for them; a similar fund provides up to $500 for adult patients.

Of course, even privately insured patients can need access to services and equipment in the interim. The money required to pay for a hospital bed while insurance claims are being settled may be enough to keep someone from making rent, paying for utilities, or choosing between food and medical needs. Fully half the people served by Project MEND are senior citizens, and that population is getting larger, Bennett said.

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Pediatric patients face a similar shortfall in their need; as children outgrow equipment before their insurance companies are willing to replace it, the agency is often filling in the gaps until they qualify for a new piece of equipment. Like the veterans served by the organization, many of the children require prostheses or similar adaptive devices. That’s why Project MEND also collaborates with the San Antonio Amputee Foundation to help fit amputees with a new piece of prosthetic equipment that may have been otherwise unaffordable.

In addition to its agency-to-agency partnerships, the program relies upon cooperation among social networks of family, friends, and caregivers who dedicate their time and efforts to making sure that Project MEND keeps a fully stocked inventory of vital medical equipment. To help provide access to the same, whether it’s through county-wide local delivery or other individual arrangements, the organization doesn’t only help connect people with the devices they need to improve the quality of their lives, but “environmentally, it just makes sense,” Bennett said.

“Our dream would be to see some sort of a facility like this available in every state across the country,” Bennett said. “Some of this stuff is perfectly good equipment that is going to end up in a landfill. The aging and disability population continues to grow across the country; we would like to see reuse programs pop up across the country.”

Bennett regards the work Project MEND does as a community investment to help average Americans who may have been disabled by injury, illness, birth defects, or simply aging.

“I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘When I’m old, I can’t wait to get into a nursing home,’ ” she said. “Each one of us wants to stay in our home for as long as possible. We’re all going to end up there eventually, whether it’s us or our parents or an elderly parent or an older sibling. We’re all going to end up somewhere being touched by disability [and] mobility issues.”

“Everyone is entitled to the equipment that will provide them with mobility,” Bennett said; “that will allow them to be as active members of their community as they can be.”