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MedShare Saves Lives, Lightens Landfill

In this first of a series featuring local non-profit organizations, I introduce MedShare and take a tour of its warehouse.

Inconspicuous among the business offices and supply warehouses of Alvarado Street, a small organization is making a big difference on a global scale.

MedShare ships basic, badly needed medical equipment to countries like Haiti, Ghana and Ecuador. In the process, it keeps hundreds of tons of unused medical equipment out of U.S. landfills.

MedShare has had a remarkable 12-year life, and the future looks just as promising. The organization's headquarters and its first distribution center opened in Atlanta, Georgia in 1998, and its second distribution center has been here in San Leandro for 2½ years. Medshare chose San Leandro for its proximity to the Port of Oakland, as well as the safe location for volunteers.

MedShare is on top of its game: I was contacted within minutes of sending an e-mail, and was in the warehouse for a tour two hours later. The 32,000-square-foot space on Alvarado Street hosts a few modest offices, a volunteer center, and sorting and storage areas.

On the day I visited, the volunteer center was bustling with nursing students filling their community service requirements by sorting kits and supplies. The whole space had a jovial feel as they chatted and took pictures.

MedShare collects unused supplies from 29 hospitals and health-care clinics in Northern California, including Kaiser, Sutter Health and Catholic Healthcare West. Donated items include sutures, gloves, gauze, syringes and much more.

When supplies arrive at the Alvarado site, they go through a multi-step sorting process that results in about 50 categories. The supplies are then packaged and listed on MedShare’s on-line inventory site, where needy foreign hospitals and traveling medical teams can “shop” for supplies.  

MedShare never ships expired goods. It also doesn’t process pharmaceuticals, but can provide information about companies that do.

MedShare has sent supplies to 85 countries, either directly to hospitals or through visiting medical teams. They have also provided $80,000 worth of supplies to 12 free health clinics in California, including the .

Chuck Haupt, executive director of MedShare’s western region, walked me through the impressive warehouse. Small cardboard boxes lined the 30-foot-high shelves, each box containing a very specific type of supply, such as sterile, non-powdered surgical gloves, size seven.

As we walked through the aisles, the energy-saving motion sensor lights followed us. Haupt said this “leveraging [of] technology to be one of the most efficient organizations in the U.S.,” is just one way MedShare continues to be cutting edge, on both the humanitarian and the environmental fronts.

Last December, MedShare was recognized by CalRecycle, the state’s recycling authority, with one of its 2010 Waste Reduction Awards. The organization diverted 169 tons of surplus medical supplies last year that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill, Haupt said in a news release after winning the award.

The award was MedShare’s second from the agency. MedShare has also won numerous other awards for its nonprofit work.

Besides boxes of supplies, the organization’s warehouse has collections of portable ultrasound machines, EKG equipment and exam tables waiting for deployment. On my visit, we met one of the nine site staff members, the operations manager, who was pulling inventoried supplies from the shelves as part of a shipment that was leaving for Peru in a few days.

Even more impressive to me than the sheer volume of material moving through MedShare’s warehouse was the organization’s effort to help volunteers understand the difference they're making, both for the people receiving medical aid, and the environment.

Haupt showed me a model clinic set up in the volunteer area that gives a tangible sense of what medical care is like in many parts of the world. Gloves and gauze hung from strings and nails, demonstrating the often-necessary practice of reusing such supplies.

MedShare donation multiplies magic

MedShare runs on donations and volunteer power. It currently receives no government aid, although private funders like Google have backed its work enthusiastically.

Medshare keeps its costs low and multiplies the donations it gets. According to Haupt, the nonprofit turns every $1 donation into over $7 of medical supplies provided abroad.

Many individuals, especially retirees, volunteer with MedShare, as well as groups from high schools, colleges and companies like Chevron, Cisco, Wells Fargo and Kaiser Permanente.

Volunteers can sign up online for one of two shifts: 9 a.m.-noon or 1- 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Special sessions can also be scheduled for companies and large groups.

Toward the end of my tour, Haupt brought me to a display of pictures showing medical missions working in poor countries and disaster areas around the world.

Pointing to a photo of one middle-aged man with a large benign tumor on his neck, Haupt talked about the man’s life of ridicule, growing up as “that boy” who was different. The man's tumor was surgically removed with supplies provided by MedShare, and he regained his dignity.

A human story found in a big idea makes it all tangible and meaningful. After hearing it, I signed up for a volunteer shift this month.

Despite the ample recognition MedShare has received for being a good volunteer organization and an eco-friendly nonprofit, Haupt still feels like MedShare is a “secret” and that not many locals know about the work it does.

Help get the secret out. One three-hour shift can give dignity and health back to someone in the world who needs and deserves it.  

You can connect with Medshare through Facebook, Twitter and the organization's blog. You can also view its work on YouTube, and flip through photos on its Flickr account.


Carol Fahrbach February 08, 2011 at 06:08 PM
Kiwanis Club of San Leandro and their Key Club members went on Sat AM for a year to help sort out good at Med Share. People are always needed and the work isn't hard. It is a wonderful way to help out. Carol Fahrbach Kiwanis Club of San Leandro
Jennifer Courtney February 11, 2011 at 01:30 AM
50th container of supplies to be shipped out on Valentine's Day: http://www.medshare.org/media/press-releases/31

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