Four billion pounds of medical supplies, many brand-new, unexpired and without defect, are thrown out every year in the United States. At the same time, other countries all over the world have a shortage of these same types of medical supplies and equipment, as well as limited access to health care. The Providence Medical Supplies Recovery Program of Providence St. Joseph Health, through its Medical Supply Warehouse in Lacey, is taking huge strides to help solve both of these issues by collecting and sorting medical supplies destined for landfills and distributing them to communities in need.

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Providence caregivers serve other countries through mission work and local volunteering at the Medical Supply Warehouse. Photo credit: Laura Rodriguez

Providence Health International (now known as the Global Partnerships Department of Providence) began 28 years ago at Providence St. Peter Hospital. Providence, in partnership with other organizations, recognized the problem of medical supply waste within its hospital systems and created a program to reduce this waste. In 2000, a full-time international missions program and a Medical Supplies Warehouse were created to recover supplies and put them to use on a global scale.

Providence St. Joseph Health is unique in that it is the only hospital system in the U.S. that has a medical supplies recovery program. Its warehouse receives medical supplies from most of Providence’s hospitals and health care facilities (in WA, OR, CA, AK,  and MT). Last year, Providence’s Global Partnership sent over 58,000 pounds of supplies internationally to 12 different countries and distributed the same amount locally, diverting tons of waste from landfills and saving thousands of lives. This year alone, 20 countries have benefitted from the Providence Medical Supply Warehouse.

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Providence caregivers make up a portion of the now hundreds of volunteers at the warehouse. Photo credit: Laura Rodriguez

What also sets Providence apart are the values that form the foundation of its work. Justice – “everyone has a right to the basic goods of the earth” – and stewardship – taking care of the earth and its resources – are the values that have driven Providence’s international and local work. Core values of respect for “the dignity of every person,” excellence, and, perhaps most of all, compassion – “embrac[ing] those who are suffering” – dictate the manner and character of this work. Through these values, Providence St. Joseph Health seeks to “reveal God’s love to all, especially the poor and vulnerable, through . . . compassionate service.”

To accomplish this mission, Providence’s Global Partnerships Department works closely with nonprofits such as Medical Teams International, World Vision and Faith in Practice. Medical supplies can be requested by nonprofits and individuals for short-term missions or long-term projects. Organizations are asked exactly what they need and how much, ensuring that further waste is avoided and that supplies are put to good use. Providence caregivers also use the warehouse’s supplies on their own missions or volunteer work.

The country of Guatemala, specifically, has benefitted hugely from the supplies collected by Providence. Providence Health International, in partnership with Medical Teams International (based in Portland) and Faith in Practice, is deeply rooted in Guatemala, a country in which only 10 percent of the population has access to healthcare. Healthcare providers from both organizations have taken on projects to improve the public health and strengthen the health care system of this country, while “working with the Guatemalan people” to accomplish these goals.

Providence Medical Supplies Warehouse
United Way Day of Caring volunteers sort through medical supplies at Providence’s Medical Supply Warehouse. Photo credit: Laura Rodriguez

Essential to this transforming work are medical supplies and equipment. Laura Rodriguez, manager for Partner Relations of Medical Supply Recovery, attests to the significant impact that recovered medical supplies have. “We are able to save thousands of lives each year because of the medical supplies being sent out,” she shares.

Rodriguez’s role in Providence’s Global Partnerships Department is to develop relationships with communities who have limited health care access. In 2016, for instance, she worked on developing a program to distribute medical supplies locally. According to the World Health Organization’s guidelines, medical supplies can’t be shipped for use internationally if their expiration date is within 18 months. However, these items are still usable. Rodriguez’s program sends short-dated supplies to free clinics and local organizations such as Olympia Rescue Mission, Seattle Rescue Mission, Catholic Community Services, Swedish Community Program, the Thurston County Food Bank and others. Supplies are also sent to instructional facilities such as Bates Technical College and Tacoma Community College.

In her two years as manager, Rodriguez has worked on developing the volunteer program of the Medical Supply Warehouse. In only one-and-a-half years, the number of volunteers at the warehouse has grown from ten to about 300, and is still growing. With a current paid staff of just four and loads of supplies coming in each week, the warehouse always has a need for more volunteers. Rodriguez notes, “We can’t do the work without the volunteers.”

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Students, such as this nursing class from Bates Technical College, are encouraged to volunteer at the warehouse. Photo credit: Laura Rodriguez

Volunteers sort, package, label and load supplies, look for damaged items and expiration dates, and help with the warehouse’s recycling program. There are also opportunities for data-entering volunteer work. She encourages anyone interested to volunteer, whether they be an organization, family or high school class. “We love it when high school students come in,” Rodriguez says. Volunteering at the warehouse gives students an opportunity to build organizational, communication and team-building skills, but also allows them to make a tangible difference in the community and world.

In addition to volunteers, personal care and baby items are always needed, especially toothbrushes. Providence takes dental trips to Guatemala and wants to be able to provide a toothbrush to every one of the nearly 2,000 patients seen each day. Last year, Rodriguez worked with a local high school to hold a toothbrush-collecting fundraiser. Rodriguez also welcomes community members to visit the Lacey warehouse for a tour or to learn more about the program. “We want the community to be connected to the work happening here and to be involved in it,” she explains.

Volunteers in groups of up to 20 are welcome to volunteer Monday through Thursday from 9:00 a.m. to noon or from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Volunteers are also needed the third Saturday of the month from 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

If you are interested in volunteering, contact Laura Rodriguez via email at laura.rodriguez@providence.org or by phone at 360-493-5641.

Warehouse Location:
9225 Polaris Ln. NE
Lacey, WA 98516

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