By Royal Brevvaxling Special to Published Mar 27, 2012 at 3:01 PM

The Wheelchair Recycling Program's Mobility Store, 12040 W. Feerick St., offers "mobility with dignity" to those in need of durable medical equipment at low cost.

The Mobility Store provides everything from wheelchairs to strollers, walkers, scooters and standing frames (or "mobile standers," which get people upright to help prevent pressure sores caused by lying in one position too long).

Its customers either do not have health insurance or, more often, their insurance companies have limits or gaps in coverage for the kinds of medical equipment they need to lead a better quality life.

The Mobility Store was formed in Madison in 1988 by Bruce Borden as a small-group volunteer project to collect and send medical equipment overseas.

"But when people heard about the project they said, 'Hey wait, we need those things, too,'" says Julie Schulz, the group's executive director.

The organization was 20 years into its mission when the board realized it needed to expand into the the state's population base, which meant opening a store in Milwaukee. It found a site on North 27th Street near Wells Street, which still serves as a storage facility today, but it didn't meet the group's overall needs.

"The main issue was the lack of parking and the difficulty this posed for many of our customers," says Schulz.

The Mobility Store relies upon donations from individuals as well as other businesses. Volunteers are always appreciated and needed to pick up donations. Many area nursing and group homes have a reciprocal relationship with the Mobility Store; the homes donate used equipment and the store sets up their clients with refurbished equipment.

The organization got a boost when former Gov. Tommy Thompson took an interest in the wheelchair program and worked to secure a grant for it from the state DNR. Its major partners currently include Froedtert Health and Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Wisconsin.

Although funding continues to pose a difficulty, like it does for most non-profits since the onset of the great recession in 2008, the Wheelchair Recycling Program has consistently increased its support to those in need. The program provided 1,460 items to customers in 2010; last year, they provided 2,120 pieces and helped 1,339 people.

The program employs workers at Badger State Industries to inspect, clean and refurbish all the medical goods it provides. Invacare Corporation, an Ohio-based manufacturer of durable medical equipment, trains the Wisconsin prison inmates who work for Badger State to service the equipment.

"They check every nut, every bolt, every screw, every motor. The before and after pictures are pretty startling," says Schulz.

The training program leads to a certification and is one of the higher-paying prison jobs at Badger State.

Inmate workers use commercial-grade steam cleaners on fabrics and employ the "Hubscrub," which is a disinfecting machine that meets stringent hospital standards.

People tend to advance or decline in health. Since they don't stay the same, they often need new equipment to fill a gap in their care, in their lives. For example, kids need new medical equipment just because they grow. Others need new equipment after a change in medical condition or because the equipment wasn't sufficiently meeting their needs.

Schulz says a common scenario is when customers with insurance have policies with five-year limits on new medical equipment. What happens then is the equipment wears out or doesn't meet their needs in, say, three years and they are left in a lurch.

"We can't control inventory, as we rely on donations, but we generally have everything from pediatric to geriatric equipment. There can be a wait list for some equipment, but just as I tell someone we don't have what they need, we'll get it in," says Schulz.

The Mobility Store is often able to help people immediately, but they can get equipment for nearly everyone within six months.

Customers receive the equipment they need at 15 to 23 percent of its actual retail value. For example, a wheelchair that the Mobility Store has on its showroom floor that's worth $32,000 will be sold for $2,200.

People who cannot afford the equipment they need are eligible for interest-free financing at the Mobility Store through its Equipment Advance Fund, grants for which are provided by the Faye McBeath Foundation and the State of Wisconsin.

Royal Brevvaxling Special to
Royal Brevväxling is a writer, educator and visual artist. As a photo essayist, he also likes to tell stories with pictures. In his writing, Royal focuses on the people who make Milwaukee an inviting, interesting and inspiring place to live.

Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.