Health & Medicine
4:55 pm
Wed May 15, 2013

F.R.E.E. Foundation Equips Patients

Rhonda McAleer, George McAleer, and Sonja Schaible
Rhonda McAleer, George McAleer, and Sonja Schaible
Credit photo by Beverly Amsler

Some patients leave the hospital with walker or wheelchair in tow, ready to begin their rehabilitation at home.  But for others, it’s not so easy.  Maybe they don’t have insurance or their insurance might not pay for the medical equipment they need to continue to improve. That’s where a program which started in Roanoke steps in. 

Walk into George and Rhonda McAleer’s home in downtown Roanoke and you’re immediately greeted by Lexie, their 10-year-old black Lab.  The one-level, upstairs apartment is modestly furnished and the living room is large and inviting.  George drives up in his power chair.  The Notre Dame graduate who worked in the healthcare industry was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1985.  He and his wife settled in the Star City in 1999.

“I needed canes, I need a walker and back then I did not have the resources to obtain that.”

“Back then, I wasn’t on disability, I wasn’t on Medicare, I was at the end of my financial resources, and things were not pretty.  I became the kind of person that I helped.”

A friend referred George to a new group, Foundation for Rehabilitation Equipment and Endowment.  F.R.E.E., made up mostly of volunteers, collects used mobility equipment such as walkers and wheelchairs.  They’re cleaned, sanitized, and donated to people like George, who are uninsured or underinsured.

“F.R.E.E. makes so much sense, the idea of recycling of equipment.  It’s cost efficient, it’s effective, it’s everything I’ve learned about in school from the business side of it and it makes all the sense in the world.”

George’s wife, Rhonda, says F.R.E.E. has given the couple peace of mind.

“I don’t know what we would have done if George had not been aware of F.R.E.E. and they’ve been there at just the right time; just when we needed them.  We’ve gotten several different pieces of equipment-the wheelchair, even a lift for the toilet or the handles around the toilet.  Just things that people don’t normally think about that you would need when just getting dressed or doing normal, everyday activities.” 

Sonja Schaible is F.R.E.E.’s Executive Director, one of only two full-time employees.  She says a physician started the organization in 1999.

“His patients were coming back after being out of the rehabilitation for six weeks they come back for their visit and he would notice that some of them not only weren’t getting better but they were actually getting worse physically.  And that was because they didn’t have-either their insurance didn’t cover the equipment they needed or they didn’t have insurance-and weren’t being able to get the equipment they needed in order to be more independent within their home.”

Goodwill Stores warehouse the items.  Some hospitals, such as Carilion, also have “closets” where they keep the donated equipment to give to patients before they’re discharged.  The concept of donating reused mobility equipment proved so successful, Schaible says, it spread throughout the Commonwealth.

“We now have five what we call “chapters”, the physical sites; of course one being Roanoke.  We’ve moved into Lynchburg.  We have a site in Richmond, Virginia as well as the northern Shenandoah Valley which covers the Winchester area and then also South Hampton Roads chapter which covers Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Portsmouth and Virginia Beach.”

The program is catching on across the nation, as well.

“Nationally, we’re known as one of the pioneers for mobility reuse programs and many states have called us.  Their Assistive Technology Departments have called us and asked us, ‘Tell us how you’re doing your program.  We want to replicate that’.”

In fact, the program has been so successful, F.R.E.E. recently won the Monroe E. Trout Premier Cares Award and $100,000 to continue its mission. The award reconigzes exemplary efforts by non-profit community groups to improve the health of populations in need.

Schaible says over the years, the number of client falls has decreased dramatically, because of access to the donated equipment.  The program has provided more than 5,000 devices to more than 4,000 people, who’ve been able to save thousands of dollars.

“If someone has the right piece of equipment, they’re gonna not have to go to the doctor visit for that fall, or to have to go to the ER which is costly, and maybe a hospitalization or the skilled nursing facility.  All of that is taken into consideration when we figured out how many dollars had been saved.”

In addition, it saves the community which would have to pick up the tab when patients have no insurance or are under-insured.

George, has joined F.R.E.E.’s Board of Directors as his way of giving back to the community.

“What F.R.E.E. has done for me is provided me with mobility, independence, and a sense of dignity.  And most important of all is the opportunity to serve others that are like I was from a financial perspective and like I am right now, with a chronic disease.”