While volunteering at Everyone Counts, an event that surveys homeless people in Beaufort, Lori Wells watched an elderly woman struggle to walk across the gymnasium.
The woman had a cane in one hand and was gripping onto her young grandson's arm with the other.
"She was having a very difficult time," Wells recalls. "I stopped her to ask if she had a walker, and she said no."
Being homeless and uninsured, the woman couldn't afford one.
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But through The Lending Room, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that accepts and distributes gently used medical equipment, Wells was able to get that woman a walker.
"Her grandson was beaming ear-to-ear," said Wells, who is a volunteer coordinator at The Lending Room. "His grandmother would be OK walking."
Established by Natalie Haskell in 1961, The Lending Room started as an auxiliary service of Beaufort Memorial Hospital. Predating Medicare and Medicaid, The Lending Room was founded to help Beaufort's poor and because there was a lack of medical equipment in general. Beaufort had only one drug store -- Luther's Pharmacy -- and it could take a week or longer for equipment to arrive.
Needing a walker for a house maid, Beaufort resident Becky Trask sought help from The Lending Room not out of financial necessity, but because there was nowhere else to turn.
"You were not able to get any equipment quickly," Trask said. "It helped all kinds of people. The needs were all different."
In 1968, Haskell, at the age of 87, stepped down as chairwoman of The Lending Room. Trask took over in 1969, and remained at the helm for the next four decades.
"I realize the need of it. I experienced it," Trask said. "And I experienced the help from it."
Trask met Martha O'Regan in 2008 while helping O'Regan with medical equipment for her sick mother. Trask, 80 at the time and running the nonprofit with the help of friends, commented that she didn't know how much longer she'd be able to run The Lending Room.
After her mother passed, O'Regan was inspired to be a part of the organization. She contacted Trask, volunteering to take over The Lending Room in 2009 and enlisted the help of Roxanne Cheney and Carolyn Roos. Wells later joined when she moved to Beaufort in 2011.
Donated items -- such as wheelchairs, walkers, shower chairs and bedside commodes -- are stored in a warehouse space on Baggett Street in Beaufort, with a pickup location in Port Royal at Helena House Assisted Living, 1624 Paris Ave.
People come to The Lending Room from different socioeconomic backgrounds: those who can't afford equipment, those tangled in the redtape of medical insurance, those with short-term needs and those who just appreciate the spirit of sharing.
Loans are sometimes very short, as with a vacationer who didn't want to fly in with a wheelchair. Some know they will need the equipment for a bit longer, while others will need it for the rest of their lives.
The landscape of medical care has completely changed, but 52 years later, The Lending Room remains much the same.
"I think it's timeless, just like living in Beaufort is timeless," Trask said. "I think it's set apart. It's a unique, wonderful thing that's special to Beaufort."
SPREADING THE WORD
Wells joined the team last year when she moved to Beaufort from Guilford, Conn., where she had worked for Charlie's Closet, which provided the same services as The Lending Room but on a much larger scale.
Wells brought with her a vision.
"I saw how much bigger it could be," she said.
Wells' first order of business was registering as an official 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. That designation called for minor changes while opening the door to new possibilities.
Equipment is no longer borrowed, but sold for $1. This frees the organization from liabilities, while recipients are still encouraged to donate the equipment back when they are finished with it.
As an all-volunteer organization, the expenses are minimal but still exist. As a registered nonprofit, The Lending Room is also eligible for grants to pay for expenses such as the phone bill, printing fliers and brochures, and equipment repairs.
It also lends more credibility to the organization.
"Now that we're a nonprofit, people feel more comfortable donating to us," Wells said.
Currently, the group's primary focus is letting Beaufort know The Lending Room is here for people to use. There are no qualifications to use The Lending Room's services: They don't ask about insurance and they don't care.
"It's not just the needy who come get equipment," Wells said. "It's whoever needs it."
PASSING IT ON
The Lending Room wants people to know there is a place for their used medical equipment -- one better than in the trash.
Cheney said that workers at the Beaufort County dump try to help.
"(They) have been very sensitive to our efforts," she said. "We get calls from sites, from workers who have stopped people from throwing away perfectly good equipment."
Cheney also has personally benefited from The Lending Room. When her mother was ill, she borrowed equipment, such as a bedside commode.
After both of her parents passed away, Cheney found comfort in donating their medical equipment back to The Lending Room.
"It's been good for me to put their wheelchairs and walkers back into use," she said. "It's not going to do me any good sitting there. And, hopefully, I won't need any of those things for a very long time."
Wells recently received a phone call from a man whose mother had passed away, leaving behind unneeded medical equipment.
"He didn't know what to do with all of it, and he thought there must be some organization that could use it," Wells said. He donated a bedside commode.
Wells says that donating a loved one's medical equipment after they have passed is therapeutic for many.
"For them it provides hope. They pass it on. It's not thrown away or discarded," Wells said. "... It gives them hope that their loved ones' equipment could help someone else."