Nonprofit lightens load for disabled in Stanislaus
Group provides equipment, transportation, signing classes
By EMILIE RAGUSO
BEE STAFF WRITER
Louella Lamance used to call the Fire Department for help if she needed to leave her house.
"Those poor guys, they came more than once to get me to my doctor," she said. "I wished I had someone there to take a picture. They had to lift me, wheelchair and all."
Lamance, 62, lives in a mobile home in Hughson. She has spinal stenosis, a spinal cord condition that leads to persistent pain and limits physical activity.
She didn't have the estimated $1,500 to $4,000 it would cost to build a wheelchair ramp, so she couldn't get down her front steps on her own. She called dozens of service organizations before she found one that could help.
"Someone happened to give me Carole's phone number and name," she said. "They said, 'You need to call this lady.'"
The "Carole" that Lamance learned about is Carole McFarlane at the Modesto-based Society for Handicapped Children and Adults. McFarlane dispatched a small team to Lamance's home to build a wheelchair ramp. It was done in three days. It cost Lamance nothing.
The group operates several programs that serve the county's disabled: the area's largest free loan closet for medical equipment; free rides to and from dialysis and other medical appointments; grocery shopping for shut-in people; and sign language classes.
McFarlane also runs the Special Needs Fund, a program at the society that pays for medical expenses that clients can't afford, such as the ramp that Lamance needed, garage door openers, grab bars and, recently, brakes for a car that was the only transportation one client had to get to doctors' appointments.
Some members of Modesto's health care community call the society's programs vital.
"They're a godsend to me," said Tom Hand, a physical therapist at Doctors Medical Center. Hand said the society is the first place he calls if a patient can't afford to buy equipment. "When I leave them a message, they call back and say, 'If it's here, it's yours.' I can't even count how many times they've helped out."
Sarona Borba Silva, a case manager at Doctors Medical Center who helps patients make plans when they're discharged, said members of the society are always friendly and accessible.
"If they don't have the item when someone calls, they tell people to call back," she said. "They always offer to recheck if something is available."
Stanislaus County has about 76,000 disabled residents who are at least 5years old, according to the 2005 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census. The county has one of the highest percentages of disabled residents in the state, higher than San Francisco, Los Angeles and Alameda counties.
The society's office has moved several times in its 60-year history; in January, it moved into a new space at 1129Eighth St. in Modesto. The group will have more room to help people, said McFarlane, the society's director of operations.
"In the old building, the sign language classes were in with the loan closet," she said.
'Don't throw (used) stuff away!'
McFarlane said she spends weekends with volunteers scouring thrift stores, flea markets and convalescent homes to find equipment in good condition. Costs for medical equipment can be prohibitive, especially if someone doesn't have insurance: $500 for a manual wheelchair; $300 for a wheelchair cushion; $100 for a walker, she said. Ramps and electric wheelchairs cost much more.
"I just want to let people know that we use this stuff for people right here in the valley," she said. "Please, don't throw that stuff away!"
The job can be emotional, McFarlane said. She often gets phone calls from people just learning to deal with a temporary or permanent disability.
"They think they have no one to help them," she said. "It's hard enough to be disabled. What happens when you can't afford the tools to make it a little easier?"
In January, the society spent $12,000from its Special Needs Fund on equipment and services for clients, she said. Unlike the loan closet, where equipment comes back within three to six months, money from the Special Needs Funds doesn't get returned.
The organization plans to spend at least $100,000 from this fund in 2007, said Tom Truax, the society's executive director. Last year, the group loaned about $62,000 worth of equipment from its free loan closet; this year it plans to more than double that amount.
Relies on private donors
A stable of 35 volunteer drivers with the society provided 2,000 rides to clients needing dialysis; the group plans to give 3,000 this year, Truax said. Many other volunteers help with programs such as the loan closet and recreational sports activities that the society modifies for accessibility.
The society is an independent, nonprofit organization, so it relies on private donors to run its programs. For years, local businesses such as Pacific Southwest Container and the Memorial Hospitals Association "have been quietly going about their business and raising money for us," Truax said.
Truax started working at the Society in October. He has his eye on the future, with plans to increase visibility, donations and services.
"For years, our focus has been on clients with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, people in automobile accidents," he said. "As the society moves forward, we need to start expanding our definition of the disabled. For example, look at my generation. All the boomers that are retiring - what are their needs going to be tomorrow?"
To learn more about the Society for Handicapped Children and Adults, visit its Web site, www.societyforhandicapped.org, or call 524-3536. Schedules for sign language classes, a calendar of events and donation information are available online.
Volunteer Philip Sensenbaugh works in the medical equipment loan closet last week at the Society for Handicapped Children and Adults in Modesto.
JOAN BARNETT LEE/THE BEE