Halfway down the small alleyway of Mayor Lane, between Silver Spring and Thayer avenues in downtown Silver Spring, sits a small garage filled with canes, wheelchairs and power scooters.
The garage is home to the Washington Area Wheelchair Society, a nonprofit that collects medical supply donations, repairs equipment, teaches patrons how to use the equipment, and gives it to them for free. But just months shy of the nonprofit organization’s 30th birthday, the society might be in danger of closing.
“We gotta pay the rent, and it just hasn’t been coming in,” said executive director Paul Holland, who said the group has fallen two months behind in its rent and utilities, which totals about $5,000. Although it was able to pay $2,000, the society is struggling to find the remaining $3,000 needed to stay afloat.
“We’re at a crossroads here,” Holland said. “We’re not about money, but we have to be right now.”
The Washington Area Wheelchair Society ordinarily receives monetary donations — sometimes as much as a full month’s budget of $1,500 — from local churches and community organizations. Because of the economic recession, Holland said the churches and organizations that used to donate generously were forced to donate less, if at all. The society since has stepped up its efforts in soliciting prior donors and local churches and organizations for donations, although Holland said there’s no guarantee the society will meet its goal.
The Washington Area Wheelchair Society carries about 80,000 items — from wheelchairs and canes to the nuts, bolts and parts that hold the equipment together. Every person who comes in to take the equipment is given instructions on how to use the equipment and a user manual that Holland’s team of three or four rotating volunteers prints out. Holland said the wheelchair society has helped about 60,000 people, reaching nearly 2,000 people each year.
“When we finish fixing that wheelchair and put it in somebody’s hand to use, that’s pretty immediate,” said Holland, a retired Arlington County resident who has difficulty walking after living with arthritis for years. “You know that tonight you have made a difference to somebody.”
Althea Peters of Silver Spring, who volunteered with Silver Spring Help — a call-in center that’s no longer in use — for 10 years, said she always referred people seeking health devices to the Wheelchair Society. When she found out last week that Holland’s organization was hitting hard times, she worried about where low-income families would get needed medical supplies.
“He’s been providing these services to this underserved population,” Peters said. “It’s very, very unfortunate for an organization to provide that kind of service and then to just leave the scene without anybody being aware of what . . . he has done.”
That is a concern Charlie Drake of Potomac understands.
Drake has served as a home occupational therapist for MedStar Visiting Nurse Association for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. He’s helped many patients who are living on the poverty line, who lack access to education and health care or otherwise struggle to get the supplies they need.
“Right now, Medicare will give you a certain amount of equipment. After that, it’s on the individual to get the equipment, and that’s where a place like the Wheelchair Society comes in,” Drake said. “They are absolutely invaluable to get people pieces of equipment that they need that, frankly, they might not be able to afford.”
Because of the “international economic meltdown,” nonprofits “across the board” have experienced difficulty coming up with the money they need to survive, said Bruce Adams, director for the county’s Office of Community Partnerships.
“If they don’t get to us and let us know in a timely fashion, it’s hard to help them,” said Adams, whose office aids nonprofits groups.
Wesley Young of Silver Spring said he first made referrals to the Washington Area Wheelchair Society about 20 years ago when he worked with an independent living center in Arlington.
“He’s extremely knowledgeable on the programs that are available,” Young said. “I’ve yet to see [the society] turn anybody away that wasn’t qualified.”
After Young became a recipient of a scooter and hospital bed from the society two years ago because of complications from an old spinal cord injury, he began volunteering. He said he and many of Holland’s customers are “grateful” for the services offered.
“A lot of the programs are tightening up, and their insurance is not coming in,” Young said. “If he’s not there, there’s going to be a lot of people without service.”
Holland said there is no other shop in the area that does what he does. He has received calls from patrons from Frederick to Fredericksburg, Va., and from Annapolis to the West Virginia border. He estimates the group saves the health-care industry about $500,000 each year.
Drake said he has referred at least a quarter of his patients to Holland, sometimes traveling to pick up and deliver the equipment to his patients himself during his off-duty hours.
“The Wheelchair Society, as far as I know, is the absolutely best go-to place in the area, without a doubt,” Drake said. “I can’t imagine doing business without this guy.”
Josette Williams of Silver Spring has had surgery on her left knee three times and surgery on her right knee twice, for which she has received a motorized scooter, about eight canes, two walkers, a shower chair and a long-handle shoe horn, among other items, from the society. Although she has insurance, Williams worries she might not be able to afford the medical supplies she needs on the disability check she receives.
“There’s a whole community of people that depend on the Washington Area Wheelchair Society,” Williams said. “I don’t know where I would go or where any of us will go.”